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On the Road Again.

Sharp tools, scorching heat, poisonous pesticides-teen migrant workers face any dangers

With two buckets, each bearing 25 pounds of cucumbers, strapped to his waist, young James Flores staggers along a dusty row of crops in Fremont, Ohio.

"I've been working since I was 7," says the 14-year-old from Edinburg, Texas. Each summer, James works nine hours a day, six days a week, in the fields.

"The weight of the cucumbers around my waist is heavy," says James, the son of Mexican immigrants. "It's hard to walk. But the hardest part is not having fun like other kids my age. I'd rather be playing."

James is one of 300,000 child farmworkers who migrate (move) throughout the U.S., following the crop harvests. They labor in sweltering heat for long hours, sacrificing their health and safety so that their families can survive. Nearly 75 percent do not have health insurance.

Life on the Road

Migrant farmworkers are constantly on the move. Some begin each year in Florida and work their way up the East Coast to Maine. Others live in Texas and move to the Midwest in summer. Still others work along the West Coast, from California to Washington State.

Although many young migrants (farmworkers who travel from place to place) are U.S. citizens, almost 60 percent are foreign-born. Many, like Rodrigo Perez [*], enter the U.S. illegally. Rodrigo, who works on a tobacco farm in western Massachusetts, crossed the U.S.-Mexican border with the help of a man he calls "the coyote."

It took the 17-year-old Guatemalan three days to cross the desert that straddles the border. He arrived with nothing but water and a small amount of food.

"La Migra [immigration police] were patrolling the borders," Rodrigo told JS. "The coyote knew when the airplanes were around, so we knew when to hide. It was very stressful. Once I crossed the border, I felt a weight lifted off me."

"Factories in the Fields"

Child migrants have a tough life. They often start work before dawn, planting crops, weeding fields, and picking fruits and vegetables.

"As soon as 10 a.m. comes, it's unbearable because of the heat," says Rodrigo, who picks 4,000 tobacco leaves a day, sometimes in 100-degree heat. "I get very, very exhausted. Sometimes, I have no desire to keep working because the heat is so intense."

Rodrigo traveled more than 2,200 miles just to earn $7.68 an hour. Most of his earnings go to help his parents. So quitting isn't an option (choice).

"The money my parents make now is just enough to get by," says Rodrigo. "I am able to send money [to] help my family live better. I wish I could see them, but I am here for a purpose."

"Farms are like factories in the fields," says Jim Leonard, a volunteer attorney with Farmworker Justice Fund Inc., in Washington, D.C. "Kids... don't just pick a handful of strawberries. They pick all day long. The work is very physically demanding."

After spending the day stooped over crops, kids like Jessica Roman have aching bodies. Jessica works with her father and two brothers in Columbia, Maine. She gathers approximately 90,000 blueberries each day, by combing a steel rake through blueberry bushes.

"The hardest part is getting your body used to the work," the 14-year-old from Clewiston, Florida, told JS. "Right now, I'm in so much pain from bending over and picking up the rake. My legs, my back, and my feet hurt. My arms feel bruised."

Poor Living Conditions

Jessica and other migrant teens find little comfort once work is done for the day. Much of the housing supplied by farm owners does not have air conditioning, heating, hot water, or private bathrooms.

In many cases, workers must find their own place to live. Some stay in crowded apartments. Some live in cabins or tents. Others are forced to sleep in open fields or cars.

Accommodations are almost always overcrowded. Rodrigo pays $90 a month to share a small apartment with eight other workers. James's living quarters are even tighter.

"I travel with my parents, two sisters, and eight brothers," he says. "Sometimes, there are two beds, and sometimes there's just one mattress on the floor. Two or three of the young kids get to sleep in the bed, and the rest of us sleep on the floor."

A Dangerous Job

Hard labor and cramped quarters are not the only problems child migrants face. In the rush to pick crops that will arrive perfectly ripe at supermarkets, children often suffer cuts and falls.

"I remember cutting my finger with gardening scissors," says Alex Tinajero, a former child migrant who now works as a legislative assistant in Washington, D.C. "I needed stitches. They didn't even give me the option of going to the doctor. Instead, they put a little bit of peroxide and a Band-Aid on it. I was back to work 15 minutes later."

Since most farm owners do not provide health insurance, Alex's experience is not unusual. Migrant workers rarely receive proper medical care.

Indeed, farm labor is one of the most dangerous occupations (jobs) in the U.S. Each year, 24,000 children are injured on farms, and 300 are killed in work-related accidents. Yet child labor laws are less protective of children in agriculture than in other industries.

The minimum working age in retail, food service, and gas service is 14. But children as young as 12 can work on farms alongside their parents or with their parents' permission. Similarly, while kids must be 18 to do hazardous work in nonagricultural industries, farm employees need only be 16.

Child farmworkers also risk harm from pesticides. Migrant youth routinely work in fields sprayed with toxic chemicals, which can cause skin irritations and breathing difficulties. Children are especially vulnerable (at risk) to the effects of pesticides.

Little Time for School

Half of all farmworker families earn less than $10,000 a year. As a result, most parents have no choice but to send their children into the fields. Jessica gives half of her earnings to help her father pay the family's gas, electricity, and insurance bills.

"Many migrant children are working to help their families survive, to help feed and clothe the family," says Jeanne Cure of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. "A lot a farmworkers get paid by the piece (of fruit or vegetable picked). Having their kids help means more hands picking."

Extra hands may add up to more money, but the cost is often a lost education. Although many children only work summers, others labor throughout the school year. This takes a huge toll on their schooling.

"Because some migrant children aren't able to attend school regularly," says Cure, "they often miss out on education, which limits the kinds of jobs they can get other than farm work. Often, their only options are low-paying jobs, which leaves them stuck at poverty levels."

"A Better Life"

What's being done to help migrant child workers? A federal Migrant Education Program gives funds to states to provide tutors, transportation, and health services to young farmworkers.

One of the 620,000 children currently served by the program, Rodrigo attends special summer-school classes four nights a week. Though he arrives at school exhausted, Rodrigo is eager to learn.

"I come to the program because I want to learn English," he told JS. "My parents are farmers. I want a better life for myself."

Changing Laws

This fall, Congress will discuss the Children's Act for Responsible Employment (CARE), a bill sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). If passed, the bill would make child-labor laws just as protective of kids working in large-scale agriculture (farming) as in other industries.

Meanwhile, James Flores continues to toil in the fields. With the sun's fierce rays beating down on his back, he wipes the sweat that pours down his face.

"Being in the sun, it burns," says James. "It gets real hot. But I've worked beside my dad all my life. I feel proud to make money to help support my family."

(*.) Not his real name.

Lost Educations

James Flores, 14, hopes to attend college some day. "I'd like to be an engineer," he says. "I'm good at math."

But sometimes, James must leave school before the end of the term. He and his parents and siblings travel north to pick fruits and vegetables.

For most migrant teens, life on the road means that education takes a backseat. Language barriers, isolation, and poverty add to the difficulties. Fifty percent of young migrants get discouraged and drop out of school.

When they grow up, their only options, as Jeanne Cure points out, "are low-paying jobs (such as migrant labor], which leaves them stuck at poverty levels." Look at the pie charts above. How does the high-school dropout rate for migrant teens compare with the rate for all teens?
Dropout rate for all U.S. teens 11.2%
Dropout rate for migrant teens 50%

Source for graphs: US Census Bureau: Office
of Migrant Education

Note: table made from pie chart
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:migrant framworkers
Author:Fanning, Karen
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 17, 2001
Previous Article:Smart MACHINES.

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