The hours are long, the work is back-breaking, and the workers can be as young as 12: an NBC Bay Area investigation into child labour in the US reveals thousands of children working in farming.
Reporters encountered over two dozen children working in large farms in the San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento, picking and trimming fruit and vegetables in temperatures that can top 40 degrees.
The children’s parents are low-paid migrant workers, they must work to help keep their families afloat.
A camera crew followed 15-year-old ‘Ralph’ as he rose before dawn to ensure he was in the fields and starting his long day’s fruit-picking as the sun rose.
‘We get tired … and our arms hurt,’ Ralph said. ‘It is too hard to be in the fields.’
A legal loophole in US labour laws enables farms of all sizes to hire children from the age of 12 – but NBC Bay Area met children who said they started work at 10 and 11, and in some cases even younger. Some said they had been told by supervisors to lie about their age to ensure they could work.
One grower admitted to reporters that he knew of cases where children had been hired underage.
While the times children can work are strictly limited in other industries, in agriculture there is no such limit to the hours children can work provided they are outside school hours, Zama Coursen-Neff of Human Rights Watch tells NBC.
‘You have to realise that many children who are working in hazardous conditions in the United States are working absolutely legally because U.S. child labor law which is pretty good has a big gaping hole in it when it comes to agriculture,’ she told the reporters.
An attempt to tighten the rules on child labour floundered earlier this year after fruit and vegetable growers complained proposals were ‘too restrictive’, and risked harming small, family-run farms. A recent bill passed by the House of Representatives would prevent the Labor Department from changing the child labour laws in the near future.
So for now, Ralph and others like him will keep toiling in the sun.
It’s a fascinating investigation – yet some key areas are glanced over. Critics say the need to work in this way often disrupts child labourers’ education, but the laws say all labouring has to happen outside school hours. We see Ralph heading to a special night school for migrant children after his day’s work – but it’s not clear whether this topsy-turvy balance between school and work is the norm.
And while the shifts NBC finds children working – up to nine or ten hours at a time – are gruelling in the extreme, it’s not clear whether this is year-round or seasonal. It’s not even clear how many days a week they work.
We are told that the children’s labour helps put cheap fruit and vegetables on US tables – but there is no mention of how much they earn, or even whether they are paid less than adults.
Perhaps none of this matters: the working hours and conditions for these youths are undeniably shocking, particularly in the richest country in the world. And the fact that the government is actively legislating to prevent change is more shocking still.
This story was originally published by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.