Educational Resources

Information on Farmworker Children

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AFOP estimates there are between 400,000 and 500,000 child farmworkers in the United States.

Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs staff regularly visits farmworkers in the field. On one such visit, in July 2002, staff interviewed a group of fifteen farmworkers in Texas. Most of the workers were between the ages of ten and sixteen. Ten-year-old Robert Aguilar worked five hours a day to help support his family. Another youth, Gilberto, said he was thirteen years old and had been working cotton for five years. Four members of the group had started farm work at age ten or younger. Sixty percent had missed some school because of farm work.

No one knows how many children work in agriculture in the United States. In 2006, the Childhood Agricultural Injury Survey by the USDA/NASS found 307,000 youth under the age of 20 employed in the agricultural industry. In 1998, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that 300,000 youths aged 15- to 17-years-old worked in agriculture. In the same year, the National Agriculture Statistics Service released a report indicating that 431,730 youths aged 12- to 17-years-old were hired for agricultural work. No studies have been done on the number of child farmworkers under age 12. (Back to Top)

Children working in agriculture face serious health threats.

A 14-year-old male farmworker died on August 15, 2002, after he fell into an operating cattle feed grinder/mixer. He was using a hook to drop bales of hay into the grinder when he lost his balance and fell into the grinder. His death went unnoticed for 20 minutes, until a co-worker discovered the machine had been left unattended.

Children account for about 20 percent of all farm fatalities. Between 1992 and 2000, 42 percent of all work-related deaths of minors occurred in agriculture. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), between 1995 and 2002, an estimated 907 youth died on U.S. farms, averaging 130 deaths of youth per year. The 2006 Childhood Agricultural Injury Survey (CAIS) estimated 22,900 injuries to youth on farms.

Farmworkers regularly work in fields treated with pesticides—some of which are known carcinogens. Child farmworkers are exposed to the same pesticide levels as adults, yet likely face a far greater health risk. In March 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that children under two-years-old may be ten times more vulnerable to cancer from chemicals and pesticides that cause gene mutations. Children ages three to fifteen may experience at least three times the cancer threat the same amount of chemicals poses to adults, said the EPA. Yet the Agency has not established additional protections for working children under the Worker Protection Standard, the body of regulations that limits farmworkers’ exposure to recently sprayed fields. (Back to Top)

Farmworker children are not being afforded the same protection as other working children.

Seventeen-year-old Gloria was picking oranges when she began to complain of nausea, dizziness, blurred vision and stomach cramps. The orchard had been sprayed with pesticides the day before. No warning signs had been posted.

Federal laws permit a child aged 13 to work in 100-degree heat in a strawberry field, but do not permit that child to work in an air-conditioned office. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the legal age to perform most farm work is only 12 if a parent accompanies the working child. Children who are 14 or older can work unlimited hours in the fields before or after school hours. The same law requires a minimum age of 14 years for non-agricultural work and limits such work to 3 hours per day while school is in session.

Furthermore, federal laws allow children to perform hazardous work in agriculture at age 16, while the minimum age for hazardous work in all other industries is 18.

Farmworker children should not receive less protection from labor laws because they must work in agriculture. This industry no longer deserves sweeping exemptions to the Fair Labor Standards Act- legislation that was enacted almost 70 years ago when our national economy was vastly different. (Back to Top)

These children are dropping out of school at an alarming rate.

Elda Hernandez, now 19 and the seventh child of a farmworker family, fell so far behind in her school work that she dropped out of school at age16. When she was six, her family worked in an area of California that was so remote that she and her siblings missed an entire school year. Elda started helping her family in the fields when she was in the fifth grade, missing two months of school to pick cherries and raspberries.

Half the youths who regularly perform farm work never graduate from high school. Report authors found that children in agriculture work, on average, 30 hours a week, often during times of the year when school is in session. Long hours in the field make it difficult to succeed in school. (Back to Top)

We must act now to protect child farmworkers.

It’s time to address the unequal treatment of child farmworkers under the law. The 110th Congress considered legislation to remedy the problem but did not act.

Please urge Congress members to revise the Fair Labor Standards Act to remove exemptions that allow children working in agriculture to work longer hours and perform hazardous work at younger ages than children working in other industries. (Back to Top)

We must provide support services to farmworker families and children.

Many children work with their families or play in the fields because their families cannot find or afford childcare. There are federal programs for migrant youths—Migrant Head Start and Migrant Education—that need to be fully funded so that all migrant and seasonal farmworker families have access to safe and affordable child care. The Descriptive Study of Seasonal Farmworker Families by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that, for Migrant Head Start, only 19 percent of the eligible migrant children and 2 percent of the eligible seasonal children in our country were being served. This compares to a 60 percent national rate of participation. In 2009, Migrant Head Start served about 35,000 migrant and seasonal children. (Back to Top)

We must ensure that farmworker families make a living wage.

Many migrant children work to supplement family income. In 2002, researchers found that 57 percent of farmworkers earned less than $12,500. The average farmworker family made between $15,000 and $17,500, well below the federal poverty level for families of four or more people. (Back to Top)