It's Time to End Abusive Child Labor on America's Farms

08/05/2011 03:01 pm ET | Updated Oct 05, 2011

Imagine if your five-year-old skipped naptime, snack time, and playtime to head out into a dusty, pesticide-covered field soon after the sun rose. His small blistered fingers picking tomatoes, hundreds of tomatoes, with temperatures in the high 90s. 12 hours later he heads home and has earned perhaps $25 for his day's work. This is happening right now, in America, every day, and the time has come for us to put an end to it.

There are currently 400,000 American children experiencing these hardships first-hand. For six months out of the year they are on the road following the harvest, working 12 to 14-hour days doing backbreaking labor, coming into contact with toxic chemicals and earning below minimum wage. And it's all perfectly legal.

These are the child farm-workers who pick the fruits and vegetables grown on America's farms that we eat. It's not surprising that most Americans are unaware that this happens. These children work in 48 states but are often hidden from view by sprawling acres of fields.

In 1938, during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act. The new legislation required that children must be at least 14 years of age to work outside the home, established a minimum wage and limited the number of hours a minor can work during the week. At the time many children as young as five-years-old worked all day in factories and mines instead of going to school, performing jobs for which they literally risked life and limb and earned only pennies a day.

When the Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938, agriculture was exempt, supposedly because many farms were family-owned and the act was not meant to criminalize parents whose children worked for them. But even then, America was moving away from the family-owned farm in favor of industrialized agricultural behemoths that employ thousands of people. Instead, the exemption has often been used as a loophole by corporations to benefit from cheap child labor.

Four years ago I became personally involved when I became a producer of The Harvest/La Cosecha, a new documentary that profiles three kids who work picking crops in Florida, Texas and Michigan. The youngest of the three, Zulema, is only 12 years old, and she can remember working in the fields as far back as her memory reaches. Perla, who is 14, is crushed by the pressure of having to support her family when her father became ill, and longs to live in one place where she can have lasting friendships. And Victor, 16, picks 1,500 pounds of tomatoes a day and has suffered skin damage from the pesticides with which he comes into contact.

These are American kids, no different from any other except that they live in a world of backbreaking work with little room for childhood. Many of us pay more for organic produce because we're concerned about chemicals and want assurances that the food we eat is healthy. I'd like us all to add how our food was picked to our list of concerns.

It doesn't have to be this way. Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard has introduced the CARE Act, which would raise the minimum age for farm workers to 14 and strengthen other laws to bring them more in line with other industries. So far it has not received widespread public attention or support. This needs to change. We're already a decade into the 21st century. Kids should be learning about the history of abusive child labor in school, not living it in the fields.

Albie Hecht is co-founder of Shine Global Inc. and executive producer of "The Harvest," a film about child migrant laborers that opens in Los Angeles on August 5.