Last week, a local Kroger supermarket offered North Carolina sweet potatoes for 88 cents per pound. It's a steal for a locally harvested, nutritious vegetable—a vibrant addition to the dinner table. But at what cost?
Neftali Cuello recalls kneeling in a sweet potato field in Eastern North Carolina to photograph a child who was working. Cuello, now 16, took the picture in 2011. She had done the same work as the child when she was 12, the minimum legal working age for agricultural work in North Carolina. She and her sisters worked to help support their family.
The boy in Cuello's black-and-white photograph looks small, his age unclear. He is squatting in the dirt and reaching for a potato about the size of his loosely gloved hand.
Cuello shakes her head as she recalls taking this photo, which is in a series of postcards to raise money for NC FIELD, a nonprofit advocating for young farmworkers.
According to the documentary Uprooted Innocence, almost half a million children are working in fields in the U.S. While the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 sets the minimum working age at 14, the law allows children ages 12–14 to work in the agricultural industry as accompanied minors or with parental consent. According to Carol Brooke, a lawyer with the NC Justice Center specializing in child labor laws and policy, it is legal in North Carolina for children as young as 10 to be a paid employee in agriculture. They can work as long as 14 hours a day.
The law hasn't been touched since 1938, says Emily Drakage, a regional director at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs and co-founder of NC FIELD. At the time, U.S. agriculture was based on family farms, not agribusiness.
Nearly 75 years later, Drakage says, the law "does not reflect the current realities of industrial agriculture. There is a big difference between working for your dad who is a farmer, and a farmworker."
In conjunction with the Farmworker Advocacy Network, Carol Brooke wrote House Bill 838, "Protect Youth/ Family Farm Employment," and submitted it to the North Carolina General Assembly in April 2011. The bill, which received bipartisan support, proposed to amend the state's youth employment laws to prohibit employment of children 13 and under, unless the kids are working on their family farm. The bill required businesses to give child farmworkers rest breaks, limit hazardous tasks and cap their work hours. A child's work schedule could not interfere with school, which is already legally prohibited in other industries for children ages 14 and 15.
"We're just working to fill in that loophole that excludes agriculture and looking to equalize child labor law," Drakage said.
However, the bill went nowhere and is unlikely to be resurrected in this year's legislative session.
From 1995 through 2000, 695 children died on U.S. farms, according to the documentary. At least two of those deaths occurred in North Carolina, state Department of Labor communications representative Dolores Quesenberry confirmed: One child died on July 30, 1998, after being struck by lightning. A 14-year-old died on Sept. 6, 1999, from injuries sustained when he was run over by a tractor.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, a día libre ("day off") for most migrant farmworkers, members of Poder Juvenil Campesino (Young Farmworker Power) gathered at the Kinston home of Melissa Bailey, an NC FIELD co-founder, and Angelina Mendoza, a wife of a farmworker who serves on the NC FIELD board. The two take in many young migrant workers who have no ties to their families.
The young workers finalize plans for a Children in the Fields summit to be held this spring in Washington, D.C. They discuss health issues that fieldhands, young and old, face—pesticide exposure and green tobacco sickness—and access to education for school-age undocumented farmworkers.
Prominently displayed on a wall, a framed certificate commends Ingrid Perez-Lopez for academic excellence at South Lenoir High School for the 2011–2012 school year. Perez-Lopez, 16, and her toddler son live at the home. She began working in the fields at 12 and became pregnant while living in a labor camp. According to a 2010 Human Rights Watch report, young migrant farmworkers drop out of high school at four times the national rate, but Perez-Lopez has defied that trend, continuing to make the honor roll every semester while raising her son.
"You wish to be like any other kid, to be a teenager. But you never have that opportunity," says Perez-Lopez, who says she is undocumented, having arrived in the United States from Guatemala with relatives when she was 5. "I want to be somebody," she says.
Without giving specifics, Bailey and Drakage say that young female migrant workers in North Carolina are often victims of sexual abuse and sex trafficking. Bailey says that many victims don't report the incidents to the state labor department because they fear losing their jobs or being deported.
"One family battled back, and they ended up without jobs—all of them," Bailey says. "They struggled one whole season and no one wanted to give them work."
Milly Lima, one of the teenage girls at the meeting, speaks openly about the sexual harassment she says she experienced at ages 13 and 14 by her supervisor in Eastern North Carolina. When she reported the issue to the head contractor, she, her mother and grandmother, all working in the same field, were fired. She says two young girls at the same camp were being offered as prostitutes to the same supervisor.
Lima told this story publicly at a Day of the Dead event last November in Raleigh honoring farmworkers who had died as a result of their jobs. A few hundred people attended, including Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry.
Quesenberry, the labor department spokesperson, told the Indy that "the safety of all workers is a priority" for Berry.
At the event, Berry mentioned that the Department of Labor's Agricultural Safety and Health Bureau has conducted numerous safety training sessions in Spanish for farmworkers across the state. It has also produced training materials in Spanish and English for growers to train their own workers regarding safety. The topics include tobacco baler safety, heat stress, tobacco harvester safety, forklift safety and green tobacco sickness.
However, it's unclear whether the growers use those materials and if they follow—and require their workers to follow—the safety rules and guidelines.
A 2008 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that the incidence rate of pesticide poisoning is high among U.S. agricultural workers. But while the health effects of pesticide exposure and other field-related illnesses have been studied in adults, there are no studies analyzing the impact on child farmworkers. It is known, however, that in general the pesticide burden is greater on children because of their lower body weight and the effect of chemicals on their developing bodies.
Lima, who is featured in Uprooted Innocence, says she has been sprayed twice by pesticides while working in the field. Nonetheless, she was told to get an over-the-counter medication for a rash and continue working the next day. This month, doctors discovered an inexplicable fluid in her brain that requires surgery. She says she never received safety training regarding pesticide exposure on the job.
"I thought it was OK for the contractors to treat their workers like that," says Lima, now 16. "I was younger, I didn't understand. But even an adult would get yelled at for no reason. That adult, they wouldn't speak up."
Lima was born in the U.S., but much of her family, originally from Guatemala, is undocumented. Also on the honor roll, Lima is completing the 10th grade. She wants to be an immigration lawyer.
"I know that we have the right to actually speak up. Even though I'm a citizen, when I speak, I speak on behalf of all the Hispanics, with or without papers," she says. "I speak on behalf of them because I consider myself uno de ellos. 'Cause I am. I am one of them, always will be."
Elvis Ordonez, 19, once staged a sit-in in the fields when he and his fellow workers were refused a water break. He says days typically begin at 6:30 a.m. and end at 4:30 p.m., with only a 20-minute break. He initially came to the U.S. to work temporarily with his father in the fields, and then study. That was four years ago. So far, he has managed only sporadically to take English classes; he says he has abandoned his goal of finding the time and resources to study. He and his father, and now his mother, all work in the fields to send money to his siblings and family in Mexico.
Through an NC FIELD grant, Ordonez and other members of Poder Juvenil Campesino participate in photography workshops. Their work has gained recognition around the country and, most recently, in Mexico, where an exhibit is scheduled for the fall.
"I take photos because there are certain people who don't feel comfortable talking about farmworkers in the field. But these farmworkers exist," he says. "There are emotions that people working in the fields are feeling that can be expressed through a photograph. Every time I take a photo, I always think of that. I think of telling a story. You can tell so many things from just one photograph, without words, without having to say anything."
For the past 10 years, the NC Justice Center, FAN and Toxic Free NC have asked Labor Commissioner Berry to meet formally, say their representatives. Last week, the commissioner, who is up for re-election this year, agreed to meet April 3.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Who's picking your food?"