Childhood and Child Labor

“Perhaps we can bring the day when children will learn from their earliest days that being fully man and fully woman means to give one’s life to the liberation of the brother who suffers. It is up to each one of us. It won’t happen unless we decide to user our lives to show the way.” -Cesar Chavez

Childhood and Child Labor

  • Hundreds of thousands of adolescent farm workers are laboring under dangerous and grueling conditions in the United States. These children often work 12-hour days, and during peak season, may work 14 hours a day or more, seven days a week. One-third of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch (an international human rights organization) reported earning significantly less than the minimum wage. Some workers were paid as little as $2.00 an hour.” (“Fingers To The Bone: United States Failure To Protect Child Farm Workers.” Human Rights Watch. New York. June 2000.)
  • Agriculture is the most dangerous occupation open to minors in the United States. When children work in the fields, occupational injury presents an even more significant risk than for adults because of their lack of experience. Children working in agriculture in the U.S. represent only 8% of the population of working minors, yet account for 40% of work-related fatalities among minors. An estimated 100,000 children suffer agriculture-related injuries annually in the United States. (Ibid.)
  • Under existing U.S. law, adolescent farm workers can work at younger ages, for longer hours, and under more hazardous conditions than children in other jobs. The Fair Labor Standards Act sets age 12 as the legal limit for farm work, with exemptions available for children as young as 10 or 11. Studies have shown that many children under age 12 continue to do farm work. This double standard amounts to discrimination against child farm workers, the majority of whom are Latino. (Ibid.)
  • Even when children do not work, they may be at risk. Because child care facilities are rarely available, many farmworker children are present in the fields and thus are exposed to pesticides on plants and in the dirt. Children have a smaller body mass than adults and their metabolisms differ from those of adults. As a result, it is thought that the consequences of pesticide exposure may be more severe for children. (
  • Children of migrant farm workers have high rates of parasitic infections, malnutrition, and dental disease. They are also less likely than other children to be fully immunized. (“United States Farm worker Fact Sheet.” Student Action With Farm workers. Durham, North Carolina.)


  • Changing schools often is hard on migrant children emotionally. Children are more likely to drop out of school if they change schools four or more times. The Migrant Head Start Program, a federally subsidized educational program, has proven to be very beneficial to children who move frequently but, as with most programs, the need outweighs the resources. However, there is some hope in recent years. Despite the deep emotional ties and traditions that bind the farmworker family, it appears that more students are now being allowed to stay behind in school when other family members migrate. Educators who work with migrant children say that 55 percent of migrant children graduate nationwide, compared with only 45 percent just a few years ago. (
  • Additionally, differences in the acculturation levels of parents and children place a strain on the family. Due to their superior English language fluency, some migrant children refer to themselves as negotiators for their parents, a role requiring skills well beyond those expected for a child’s age.

See Also: Fingers to the Bone: United States Failure to Protect Child Farmworkers. Human Rights Watch. 2000.

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