Child labor in American agriculture

Nearly half a million children farm workers harvest almost 25 percent of our crops.

Eric Best


It may sound like something out of the Industrial Revolution, but child labor still exists throughout the U.S. today, in surprising numbers. Most of these children are in undocumented families working in agriculture — migrating from farm to farm, following the harvest, in order to find work when it’s needed. This has become a widespread issue: Nearly half a million children, as young as 6, are involved in the U.S. agriculture industry and responsible for a quarter of crops harvested.

Agricultural work in the U.S. remains relatively untouched by labor laws. In 1938, legislation extended protections to working children — but excluded agriculture intentionally. More than 70 years later, agriculture still relies on dated labor practices and exploitation — significantly fewer unions, lower or illegal wages without benefits and unchecked working conditions. If workers want to fight for wages or benefits to which they’re legally entitled, firing or threat of deportation are used to silence workers who speak out or attempt to organize. Thus, the use of undocumented labor is remarkably profitable for the industry. In California, migrant workers’ gross economic contribution was $45,000 per person, including children, in 1994. Yet the workers were paid an average of only $8,840 each.

This has created several problems for these families. Despite their connection to fresh produce, migrant families face some of the highest insecurity when it comes to finding food. Research conducted by the California Institute for Rural Studies found that 45 percent of farm workers surveyed had trouble securing food, and 48 percent were on food stamps — more than double the national average. Their dependence on cheap, processed food results in higher rates of obesity and diet-related illnesses. Another survey done by the CIRS in 1999 of farm workers throughout California found that 81 percent of males and 76 percent of females were overweight, respectively.

However, this exploitation won’t go away by simply toughening labor or immigration laws, nor are all of its outcomes necessarily bad. As consumers on a budget, we’ve grown to rely on cheaper food. Additionally, migrant workers currently need such jobs to support themselves, even if it means being exploited.

On the consumer side, there are people here in the Twin Cities with many of the same problems as migrant farm workers. According to the USDA, places where people are not able to adequately acquire healthy food, deemed “food deserts,” exist just blocks away from campus in north Minneapolis. Obesity rates in this population are among the highest in Minnesota. Changing our food system to try to bring supermarkets to Minneapolis won’t help migrant workers, and helping migrant workers could jeopardize Minneapolitans’ access to cheap food. Increasing the power of corporations will further entrench our reliance on exploitation for food, while increasing farm workers’ wages will cause supermarkets to raise prices, hurting low-income consumers.

The answer to the problem lies in a broken, corrupt partnership between government and corporations, which presents the issue to us as if it were a sad but necessary trade-off between having affordable groceries and giving basic standards of living to farm workers. In looking for real solutions, we must question this logic of profit maximization. Solutions lie in urban agriculture, farm workers unions, holding corporations accountable for their workers and public-policy advocacy. This way we can begin to chip away at the food industry’s storyline that poses the interests of urban poor against the interests of farm workers and build healthier alternatives in its place.