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WA's Youngest Migrant Workers Toil at Dangerous, Dead-End Jobs

June 13, 2007

Washington, DC/Wenatchee, WA - For the children of Washington's migrant workers, a summer job means long hours in the fields and orchards. Kids work alongside their parents to boost the family income, and research shows half of them drop out of high school. Teachers and farmworkers' rights organizations are teaming up to change that. Agriculture is the only industry with child labor law exemptions -- and these are being scrutinized in Congress with the CARE Act, introduced this week. It would expand the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to include farmworkers. David Strauss, executive director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs says putting pre-teens in the fields is dangerous.

"If I choose to take my 12-year-old to McDonald's and stand there and say, 'I'll hang out while he works,' McDonald's has to say, 'I can't do it. I wish I could, but I can't. It's illegal for this child to work here for pay.' And we believe the same standard should hold for agriculture, whether they're with their family or not."

Strauss says long hours, low pay, exposure to pesticides and frequent relocations are among the hurdles faced by young farmworkers.

Luisa Mora works with migrant families in the Wenatchee area as Regional Manager of the Opportunity Industrialization Center. She says protections for children are a good idea, but points out that the migrant culture is family-oriented --and hard work is part of it.

"A lot of the kids go out with the families because they look at it as an opportunity to earn money, and they're together as a family unit. It's how our migrant families work -- and either they leave 'em alone in the camps, or they take them with 'em."

Mora says the Center used to receive federal funding for tutoring and childcare so kids wouldn't have to work in the fields, but not anymore. Nationwide, about half a million migrant workers are under age 18.

The CARE Act, introduced by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California), would make exceptions for kids who work on their own family farms. It's being backed by the American Federation of Teachers. Statistics about child labor in agriculture and the AFT's classroom resources for teachers can be found online at

Chris Thomas/Eric Mack, Public News Service - WA