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Lesley Lammers headshot

Child Labor on U.S. Farms Widespread, Says New Film

By Lesley Lammers


The Harvest/La Cosecha - Theatrical Trailer from Shine Global on Vimeo.

While the UN estimates there are approximately 250 million child laborers worldwide, some might be alarmed to know that 400,000 of those children are working on U.S. farms. Filmmaker U. Roberto Romano was even surprised himself, revealing to the Ecologist, “I, like many people, thought this was a problem that affected brown skin children in the rest of the world. I didn’t expect to find it here in [the US] with children that were American citizens.” Romano took a year to follow three migrant worker families and their children, Zulema Lopez (12), Perla Sanchez (14) and Victor Huapilla (16) all over the U.S. in an attempt shed light on their difficult lives in the new investigative documentary film “The Harvest.”

The film highlights that at the root of the U.S. agriculture child labor issue is an archaic exemption within the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This law was a milestone in standardizing labor practices such as the 40-hour work week and minimum wage. However, this “parental” exemption was written in a time when most of the nation’s food was being grown on family farms and thus was intended to assist families whose livelihood necessitated that their children be able to help out with work on the farm.

Today, child laborers are working on industrial farms since family farms no longer produce the majority of U.S. agricultural yield. These children, along with their families, comprise the 40 percent of industrial agriculture laborers that migrate as the harvest moves in order to maintain employment. This migratory lifestyle coupled with often meager pay creates a situation where parents have few childcare alternatives but to take the children with them to the fields.

Not only are these children at higher risk of health hazards and fatality working in agriculture, but migrant children workers are four times more likely to drop out of school and their families are twice as likely to be living in poverty as those in other occupations, according to Shine Global.

Romano emphasizes, “The larger corporations externalize their responsibility and turn a blind eye. And a lot of the smaller farmers I dealt with don’t feel like they can refuse the families that extra income if parents bring their children to work. It’s a system that is designed to perpetuate a cycle of poverty and failure.” The director goes on to tell the Ecologist that America’s agricultural industry standards are more akin to the developing third world’s.

His vision is for the film to spark conversation about the perils of America’s industrial food system and get people thinking about the children who work to bring food to this country’s table. Not only does he advocate making conscious consumer choices and supporting sustainable and local agriculture, but Romano believes Americans can do more in their role as citizens such as writing to their congressperson about this important issue.

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Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.

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