Closing the Loopholes, Opening Opportunities

By Amber James, Program Analyst for Workforce Development


“A nation can neither achieve nor sustain prosperity on the backs of its children. In the global economy, the exploitation of children must not be tolerated under any circumstances or for any reason. When children are exploited for the economic gains of others, everybody loses–the children lose, their families lose, their country loses, the world loses. When even one child is exploited, every one of us is diminished.” – Former U.S. Senator Tom Harkin

In recognition of National Farmworker Awareness Week, the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP) would like to raise awareness about the scourge of child labor in U.S. agriculture.

Around the world, agriculture remains the most important sector where 98 million, or 59%, of child laborers (ages 5-17) work, as well as the most dangerous occupation with a fatality rate of 80% for children under 15. In the United States, there are approximately 2.5 million employed farmworkers, and about half a million are under 18 years of age. The majority of child farm workers are unpaid members of migrant and seasonal farmworker (MSFW) families accompanying their parents in the fields to increase earnings.

MSFW and their children suffer greater rates of fatality, mortality and morbidity than most of the American populace due to a combination of poverty, hazardous working conditions, limited health care access, and slack labor regulations. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that an estimated 33,000 children have farm-related injuries each year in the U.S., and more than 100 of these children die as a result of their injuries. The leading causes of fatal injuries to youth were the result of children being directly involved in farm work.

The Human Rights Watch, Pesticide Action Network (PAN-NA), farmworker advocates and public health experts have also documented farmworkers’ elevated risks of chronic diseases linked to chemical poisonings, including Green Tobacco Sickness, cancer, birth defects, and learning disabilities. Of course, MSFW youth face far greater health risks than their adult counterparts from pesticide and nicotine exposure, unsanitary facilities, musculoskeletal injuries, long work hours, extreme weather exposure, hazardous equipment and machinery, and even sexual and verbal abuse.

Moreover, MSFW youth are continually put at a disadvantage, and are seldom able to access educational and extracurricular opportunities more easily obtained by other children. These children often become entrapped in a cycle of poverty.

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Although incredible headway has been made over the last few decades in publicizing the plight of America’s ‘hidden workers’ and advocating for greater corporate social responsibility and fairer labor standards, our regulatory system has still failed to protect MSFW youth. There needs to be greater commitment to closing loopholes in U.S. labor law, and facilitating the extension of child labor protections to U.S. agriculture.

During this year’s National Farmworker Awareness Week, we again draw the public’s attention to an antiquated loophole in our own food system –the agricultural exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938.  The FSLA loophole still permits children as young as 12 to work unlimited hours on a farm outside of school, and children at least 16 years of age to perform hazardous work restricted to adults in other industries. Regardless of the age, the work jeopardizes the physical, mental, and social development of child farm workers, and continually exposes them to pitiable conditions that would be deemed undignified and unlawful in any other U.S. industry or country (as most countries have adopted ILO-based legislation that prohibits or places severe restrictions on child labor).

AFOP reiterates our commitment to eliminating the legal discrimination that permits the present situation by closing the FSLA loophole that allows children to be employed in agriculture at the expense of already being disadvantaged. We envision a future in which MSFW youth have enhanced educational opportunities, adequate housing and bathrooms, potable drinking water, improved health care access, and are able to fully participate in the “American Dream.”

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On a positive note, AFOP would like to applaud the recent success of the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), of which we are a long-standing member, in helping close a draconian loophole in the U.S. Tariff Act of 1930, which allowed the import of goods and commodities produced by forced adult and child labor into the country when domestic production trailed demand. According to the Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB), approximately 21 million people around the world are victims of forced labor, and around 168 million are child laborers – 85 million engaged in hazardous work.

In February, President Obama signed the “Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act” (Public Law 114-125) into law, pressuring both U.S.-based companies and global supply networks to take greater responsibility in monitoring their supply chains and ensuring that labor practices do not violate the principles of decent work or the rights of a child (which the United States has yet to ratify). The law will target 136 goods from 74 countries based on recommendations from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The closure of the loophole, after 86 years, indicates the U.S. Government’s reconfirmed interest in curtailing American involvement in questionable labor practices, and should have significant implications for effectuating greater compliance with ethical standards. Unfortunately, the legislation fails to acknowledge the existence of unfair and exploitative labor practices on American soil, and may do little to protect the hidden workers and children who harvest the fruits and vegetables that end up on our plates every day.

There has been an increased urgency in the United States and international community to combat the worst forms of agricultural labor around the world, but where is acknowledgement of and uproar over the shameful working conditions thousands of MSFW endure in our own country? How much longer until they also have federal social protections?

A Personal Reflection: Honoring the Legacy of Cesar Chavez

In recognition of National Farmworker Awareness Week and in honor of the birthday of the great farmworker and civil rights advocate, the late Cesar Chavez, the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs is reposting a New American Media commentary by Elva Yañez. Her very personal remembrance of Chavez and the everlasting impact his work on laborers everywhere is well worth the read. To the Chavez family and all those who struggle to carry on his mission of justice, AFOP says, “Happy Birthday,” and thank you for all you do for farmworkers.

Daniel Sheehan
Executive Director
Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs

A Personal Reflection: Honoring the Legacy of Cesar Chavez

New America Media, Commentary
Elva Yañez
March 25, 2016


I was fortunate to be a child of the civil rights era. I learned from and was shaped by the world around me. When I was five years old, my sisters, mother and I walked to the Golden Gate Theater on Whittier Blvd in East Los Angeles for a Saturday matinee. The theater was far but our steps were light; I was especially excited because the Golden Gate was a beautiful and elaborate movie palace from the 1920’s with a second floor balcony. Just as we reached the theater, my mother stopped near the ticket booth and told us we had to go home. There was a picket line of striking workers in front of the theater that she refused to cross. My disappointment was overwhelming as we climbed on the bus to head home but I learned a deep and long-lasting lesson from that experience—always honor a picket line.

I think about that incident and its lessons a lot as we approach the holiday honoring the legacy of Cesar Chavez.

My mother Angelina was the first of her family born in the U.S. My family, like many, had come to Los Angeles during the tumultuous Mexican revolution. She became a garment worker as a teenager during the Great Depression and witnessed a good deal of labor unrest. Later on, she became a great admirer of Cesar Chavez. Angelina respected him for his humility, his courage in acting on his moral convictions, and for embodying the values of justice, equality, and fairness. Co-founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union with Dolores Huerta, Cesar organized Mexican and Filipino farmworkers who labored under brutal conditions. Their struggles for fair contracts with growers won workplace protections, higher wages, and collective bargaining rights in a sector that much of organized labor thought was unwinnable. Chavez’ leadership helped transform the social justice landscape in the U.S. and around the world.

Cesar insisted that social justice transcended individual campaigns about labor law and fights over union contracts. He believed in the importance of empowering workers to fight for and claim their rights. The movement’s triumphs – led by Chavez and so many that followed in his footsteps – conveyed a powerful message that David could actually defeat Goliath. Workers with virtually no support and even less political power could defeat some of the nation’s most powerful industries by building strong grassroots movements, inspiring leadership among those most impacted by injustice, and waging strategic campaigns.

Like many children, I was heavily influenced by my mother, and her love and appreciation for Cesar became deeply ingrained in me. One of my first volunteer experiences was for the UFW union as a high school student. After school I rode my bike to the union’s headquarters, also on Whittier Blvd. in East L.A., where I typed, filed, and listened to the stories of Joe Serda, who traveled the country as an organizer for the grape boycott. In college, I continued to volunteer for UFW fundraising events and leafleted in front of stores that sold boycotted products.

These experiences shaped my career working with groups waging social justice campaigns, including community-driven policy initiatives. To this day, I still regularly consult a pocket-sized booklet called “Axioms for Organizers,” which was compiled by Cesar’s mentor, Fred Ross, Sr. “Axioms” is a collection of organizing wisdom— distilled to its essence— that builds upon generations of experience. It has served as both a reference point and a touchstone for my work on tobacco and alcohol policy, land use, urban park issues, and health equity. Many organizations, such as Prevention Institute, embody Chavez’s work for social change. By looking at the root causes across systems to address injustices, and working to change local conditions, we know that communities can become empowered to ensure safe and healthy lives for their children and families.

The story of Cesar’s influence on my life is not a unique one. His legacy as one of the greatest “activist incubators” of our times is well deserved, as he helped transform so many of the young activists that worked with and for him into veteran organizers and longtime strategic visionaries fighting for equality and justice. As a woman, Dolores Huerta has also been a source of inspiration for me; now in her mid-80s she is still fighting racism, discrimination, and other injustices. Early in her career, she left teaching, unable to tolerate seeing the hungry children of migrant workers— and dedicated her life to advocating for the rights of women, immigrants, and people of color.

The lessons from Cesar’s life and the farm worker movement translated for me into a career focused on improving the community conditions that influence health and wellbeing. As Director of Health Equity at Prevention Institute, I am able to act upon shared values of health equity and social justice while upholding a commitment to authentic engagement, rigorous policy development, and public health approaches.

This March 31st, we will proudly celebrate the legacy of Cesar on the holiday named for him, as I do every year. While we honor and celebrate his accomplishments and influence, we will also reflect on the work that remains. Ongoing exposure to racism, discrimination, and lack of opportunity continue to exert a toll on the quality of life of millions of Americans. The fight for social justice and equity rages on: we see it in the streets of Baltimore, Ferguson, and Flint; among California farm workers still exposed to pesticides and working in dangerous conditions; and in present day justice movements— including Black Lives Matter, Latino “Dreamers”, Muslim immigrants, and LGBT activists— that demand equal treatment and opportunity under the law.

Honoring Cesar’s legacy links us to both historic and contemporary struggles for justice and democracy, and emphasizes the fundamental importance of grassroots organizing in waging effective movements for change. Cesar Chavez Day reminds us of the importance of having humility, respect, and courage as we work to eliminate inequities and expand fairness and justice in our communities. ¡Si se puede!

Elva Yañez is Director of Prevention Institute.

Lifting Others Out of Poverty

By: Kathleen Nelson, Director of Workforce Development
March 30, 2016

AFOP WorkforceMany farmworkers cherish the role they play in bringing fresh food to tables in homes across the country. It’s not surprising that many of the farmworkers who qualify for National Farmworker Jobs Programs (NFJP) across the country, choose to pursue careers in the agricultural sector. Through NFJP training programs across the country, farmworkers can gain the skills they need to work year-round in the industry that they love.  AFOP member and NFJP Grantee MET, Inc. has helped many farmworkers take the next step in their agricultural careers with their Farm Labor Upgrade Program. People like Carmen Julia De La Garza, were able to receive skills training including computer application, CPR/First Aid, and OSHA Safety Training, as well as specialized agricultural skills training in farm contracting and tractor & forklift operation (including a Forklift License), which made her a valuable asset to her employer, who ultimately hired her full-time as their first female forklift operator.




A Small Act of Kindness Can Save A Farmworker’s Life

By: Melanie Forti, Director of Health & Safety Programs

Our lives are so busy now days that we forget to sit back, think, and be grateful for those hard working hands that harvest our food. Unfortunately, agricultural workers are one of the most forgotten and unacknowledged workers in the United States.  Every day over 2.5 million farmworkers harvests our nation food, but in order to do so they face many challenges – from health-related issues, poor living conditions,  and sexual abuse to wage theft, and limited access to health & human services.

Farmworkers put their health at risk each day by being exposed to toxic chemicals and working in oppressive weather conditions. Due to the vigorous physical labor, pesticide exposure, and dangerous equipment, agricultural workers rank among the three most hazardous jobs in the U.S. In addition, farmworkers are at great risk of respiratory and dermatological illnesses, dehydration, heat-related illnesses, accidents with dire physical impact, as well as chronic muscular-skeletal pain.

Thanks to their hard work, we are able to have food on our tables, when sometimes they cannot afford to. During the National Farmworker Awareness Week, we can all do a small act of kindness by donating a long-sleeve shirt that will help agricultural workers mitigate exposure to pesticides and reduce the risk of suffering from a heat-related illness.

This year, AFOP’s Health & Safety Programs is holding a National Long-Sleeve Shirt Drive with over fifty drop-off locations nationwide from March 26 – April 2nd. To learn more about this event and where to drop your spare shirt please visit: or contact AFOP’s Health & Safety Programs Director, Melanie Forti at

The donated long-sleeve shirts will be distributed among the farmworker community during pesticide safety trainings, heat stress prevention trainings, health fairs, clinics, and in non-profit organizations.

Once National Farmworker Awareness Week has ended, let’s not forget those that harvest our nation’s food. Happy #NFAW2016 #GotFoodThankAFarmworker

17th Annual National Farmworker Awareness Week

Washington, DC Each year, it is estimated that over 1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to farms, forests, lawns, parks and golf courses in the United States.

With eighty percent of all U.S. pesticide use being in agriculture, farmworkers who pick the fruits and vegetables that end up on tables across America are exposed more than anyone else to the health hazards of pesticides. Annually, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10,000–20,000 doctor diagnosed pesticide poisonings occur among the approximate 2 million U.S. agricultural workers. Pesticide applicators, farmers, farm workers, and communities near farms are often most at risk.

“Over 90% of all pesticide exposures are through the skin and may result in increased rates of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, various cancers and birth defects, among others” says Melanie Forti, Director, Health & Safety Programs at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP).  Forti continues, “as simple as it sounds, a long sleeve shirt can help mitigate a farm worker’s skin from pesticide exposure, and help prevent heat-related illnesses.”

During National Farmworker Awareness Week, AFOP’s Health & Safety Programs is sponsoring its Third Annual National Long Sleeve Shirt Drive, March 26–April 2. The goal is to collect over 2,000 long sleeve shirts nationwide. (During the 2015 National Farmworker Awareness Week, 7,505 new and gently used shirts were donated.)  This year, nineteen states, including Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. are participating in this campaign.

To help protect farmworker health, long sleeve shirts will be distributed to workers at pesticide safety and heat stress prevention trainings conducted by AFOP’s Health & Safety trainers throughout the coming year.

There is always a need and plenty of ways to get involved. To find out more about farm workers and some of the health issues they face while working in the fields, or to find a long sleeve donation location, please visit

“Individuals come together to help one another and by doing so realize they have more commonalities than differences creating stronger ties and healthier communities; ultimately equality is what we’re promoting” states Vashti Kelly, Program Manager, Health & Safety Programs at AFOP.

The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs is a non-profit, national federation of 53 non-profit and public agencies that provide training and employment services to migrant and seasonal farm workers. Our mission is to improve the quality of life for all farmworkers and their families through advocacy, education, and training. For additional comment or an interview, please contact Melanie Forti, Director of Health & Safety Programs at 202.828-6006 ext. 107 or .

Contact:  Amber James
Tel. 202.384.1767