Every day after the sun rises in Limestone, Tenn., a 27-year-old Mexican farmworker walks into the barn where she washes and packs yellow squash and zucchini, her three young children carrying their backpacks next to her as she leads them straight to the break room.
Her 8-year-old and 10-year-old settle into chairs and use a hotspot to connect to the Internet. Her 4-year-old huddles over a notebook or iPad, sketching pictures and playing electronic games. Other farmworkers’ children join them, pulling out their laptops. Soon her eldest two are doing history or English exercises, logged into their classroom portal with classmates as farmworkers plunge their hands in water, rinsing off produce for eight hours near the makeshift classroom.
This arrangement has been the family’s reality for the duration of the harvest. Since the season began in May amid shuttered schools and child-care centers, the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is undocumented, has brought her children to the farm. The coronavirus forced her kids’ school to close in March, and the farmworkers’ day-care program came to a halt in May. Unable to afford to quit working, she began bringing her children to work soon after the season began. Her boss has allowed it, she says, because he knows there are no other child-care options.
We know that some children that are 8, 9, 10 years old are working in the fields.”Mily Treviño-Sauceda, Executive Director of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas
“I have to take advantage of it when there is work and bring them with me,” she says over the phone, relaying how she works seven days a week during the harvest season with no days off. Although the grueling workweeks and the stress of bringing her children to the barn makes her bone-tired and anxious, she needs the job. “Right now, there is no day of rest for me.”
The coronavirus has created a distinct crisis for impoverished farmworkers across the country. Many live in rural areas with limited access to day care and rely on schools and specialized programs to watch their children while they work long hours in the fields; without those lifelines, parents have resorted to bringing their children to work, potentially risking their health and safety to maintain an income. Experts say this has led to more kids laboring alongside their parents, a long-standing issue in the agriculture industry that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and worry the return to online schooling will leave vulnerable families without reliable Internet access further behind.
Child labor in agriculture continues to grow
In Bakersfield, Calif., Silvia Garcia, a former farmworker who now conducts outreach in the community, has been seeing children in the fields during on-site visits since mid-March. The youngest was 4 years old, Garcia estimates.
Sometimes children haul water to parched workers huddled over the crops or help their parents pick fruit like grapes, Garcia says. Just being there can be dangerous, even for kids not working. “There are a lot of snakes sometimes, especially when they work in oranges,” Garcia says. “There is a lot of risk in taking them, but they don’t have a choice.”
Child labor in agriculture is not new — approximately 500,000 children have worked in the industry as of 2014 — but coronavirus-related school and day-care closures have led to more children working in the fields, advocates and experts who work closely with the farmworker community say, including kids who do not meet the exceptions to work under federal labor law.
“We know that some children that are 8, 9, 10 years old are working in the fields,” says Mily Treviño-Sauceda, executive director of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, a national organization that advocates for farmworker women.
At a farm outside of Tampa, a 36-year-old undocumented migrant farmworker from Guerrero, Mexico, picked blueberries in April while three of her six children — aged 8, 11 and 12 — would sometimes join her under the blistering sun. Her 5-year-old lingered nearby as they worked, and her 4-month-old baby sat in a stroller in the fields, she says over the phone after work, her voice catching as she recounted those moments.
“He was very fussy, very restless, not used to being in the sun,” she says. “I regretted having brought him, but it wasn’t out of pleasure, it was out of necessity.” (Like the other workers interviewed for this story, she spoke on the condition of anonymity because of her immigration status.)
Online learning brings new challenges
In July, she and the children moved to Michigan for the blueberry and apple season; as a migrant farmworker, she travels there annually with her kids for the harvest. Her 12-year-old watches his four siblings in the family’s apartment now as she picks fruit. But with remote school in session, the 12-year-old will be busy with schoolwork during the day and unable to watch them. The mother may have to bring the five other children back to work, she says. The thought brings back a flood of bad memories, particularly of her infant wailing in the stagnant heat. The thought of returning to the fields is a source of anxiety for the children.
“I hope they won’t,” she says. “I don’t know what to do. There is no child care.”
With the return to the school year, many farmworker parents grapple with the same dilemma that confronted them in the spring. Online learning poses a particular challenge to farmworker families without Internet access or computers, putting students at risk of falling behind in their classes and leading some parents to leave their jobs.
After a month of bringing her three children with her to an outdoor plant nursery near Miami, a 36-year-old undocumented farmworker from Guatemala quit. Because of her immigration status, she is ineligible for unemployment benefits. Her family needed her weekly $300 dollar salary, and she felt anxious about leaving her youngest in the care of her eldest. So two to three times a week this spring, she brought her children — aged 7, 12 and 15 — with her.
“In the neighborhood where I live, there are lots of people walking around the streets, and sometimes they break into houses to rob them,” she says. “I didn’t want to leave [the kids] alone because it is a danger to them. [If they’re in the fields] I could keep an eye on them and watch them.”
The kids struggled when they joined her at work. They tried to do their schoolwork remotely in the middle of the fields, taking turns hoisting up the phone amid the rows of plants to log in to their classes, but sometimes there was no cellphone reception or Internet access. All three fell behind in school. Her 12-year-old snapped on plastic gloves and helped pull weeds in hopes the extra help would let them escape the sun sooner, while the 7-year-old told her he could not stand being in the heat and begged her to go home. On days she brought them to work, she would at times burst into tears.
Economic constraints add stress
“I would say, ‘My God, what is happening? Why did the coronavirus come to us? Look at how we are suffering with the kids.’ And it made me depressed,” she says. She quit working in April to stay home with the children, making ends meet by selling tamales while her husband continues to work in the fields. She makes about $100 a week, and he earns between $200-$300. The economic constraints mean they can’t make upgrades to meet the challenges of remote schooling. Instead of buying a desk for one of the kids, they stacked cabinets for a makeshift workspace for the children. The family’s Internet connection is shaky and routinely cuts out during torrential downpours, plaguing her with anxiety about how her children will fare with remote schooling.
“I tell them, ‘Pay attention to class because otherwise you’ll have a life like mine,’ ” she says. “ ‘Do something different. My life is hard.’ ”
In Tennessee, as the 27-year-old mother of three continues to pack and wash vegetable after vegetable, her children have adjusted to their new reality, she says. Her time indoors is a welcome relief from the spring and summer, when she stopped harvesting cabbage to check on her children every 45 minutes, stuck in the barn with no air conditioning as temperatures reached the 90s. Midsummer, her boss installed an air conditioner.
Now she takes some comfort in being able to see her children hunched over their Chromebooks as she submerges her squash and zucchini in water, rinses and packs rhythmically seven days a week until harvest season ends in November, when she will be out of work for the rest of the year.
At least, for now, her family is able to barely hang on, she says.
“Stopping work is not an option. We are living day-to-day.”