Children in the Fields

Find out more about child farmworkers in the United States, and get answers to common questions about child labor laws and the rights of children of undocumented migrant farmworkers.



Are there still children working in the fields in the United States?

Yes. While experts agree that it is difficult to provide an accurate estimate of the total number of farmworkers in the United States, data collected through the Department of Labor (DOL) from 1993-1998 demonstrates that 7 percent of farmworkers were between the ages of 14 to17, translating to roughly 126,000 children. According to the DOL, most of the 126,000 youth they counted were U.S.-born teenage males, more than half (54 percent) of who did not live with their parents. Other experts and advocates estimate that a greater number of child farmworkers, between 300,000 and 800,000, are laboring under dangerous and grueling conditions in the United States.

Do children working in the fields earn the same wages as adults?

The National Agricultural Workers Survey reports that 30 percent of teen farmworkers earn minimum wage or less, as compared with 23 percent of adults. Two in five adults were likely to make more than $1 over the minimum wage, as compared with one in five minors. Teens were far more prevalent in low-wage agricultural jobs than anywhere else in the industry. Additionally, young farmworkers often experience barriers to receiving the wages they earn. According to a 2000 Human Rights Watch report on the status of farmworker children, young farmworkers were often found to be cheated from receiving their rightful wages, and many earned far less than the minimum wage. Some of the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported earnings as little as $2 an hour. Currently, the federal minimum wage is $7.25.

Are there any laws to protect children in the fields?

The Fair Labor Standards Act establishes federal standards for employment in the United States. However, because of the seasonal nature of agriculture, the Act lays out several exceptions made for agriculture that are not allowed in other industries. Children as young as 10 years old can be legally employed in the fields for up to eight weeks out of the year, although their employers must first obtain an official waiver proving the need for them and they must be paid the same wages as their adult counterparts. For children 12-15, the Act prescribes limitations on employment such as school hours and hazardous conditions. After age 16, a young person can be employed at any hour in any area of agriculture. Children working for their parents on family farms have almost no limitations on employment. Yet despite the protective laws that do exist, reports of children working long hours, under dangerous conditions for sub-standard wages are prevalent. Children are among the most vulnerable and voiceless members of an already vulnerable population; the continuous labor pool and the lack of bargaining power, leaves farmworkers either afraid to complain for fear of losing their jobs or unaware that they have the right.

How do children attend school while traveling the migrant trail with their parents?

Long hours of physically demanding work and continuous migration patterns interfere with the education of children working in the fields. According to Human Rights Watch, only 55 percent of farmworker children in the United States finish high school. Of the dozens interviewed by Human Rights Watch, nearly every one had dropped out of school for at least one extended period of time.

The National Agricultural Workers Survey, released in 2005, found that only 13 percent of farmworkers completed twelfth grade. Fifty-six percent of U.S.-born farmworkers completed the twelfth grade, compared to only six percent of foreign-born.

The migrant life makes it difficult to attend school regularly, accrue credits and meet all graduation requirements. Additional barriers like poverty, language and cultural differences were noted to add to the challenges posed to migrant children, who find it difficult to participate in social and extracurricular activities and gain nonagricultural work experience.

Can undocumented children attend school?

The 1982 Supreme Court ruling Plyler vs. Doe stands as the federal precedent on the right of undocumented children to a free public education. According to that decision, a school cannot turn away children because of their legal status, cannot ask the child or parents to reveal their status, cannot create fear or discourage children from enrolling, and cannot expose undocumented status to authorities. Individual states have the right to verify residency. Attempts by states and local governments to enact contradictory legislation, such as California’s Proposition 187, which passed in 1996, were found unconstitutional based on the Plyler decision.

Are there any government programs to help solve the education problems that come with the migrant lifestyle?

Though the challenges are many and complex, the U.S. Department of Education’s Migrant Education Program (MEP) has worked with state and local districts since 1966 to help migrant children access education and gain the support they need in school. MEP efforts have helped raise graduation rates from an estimated 10 percent in the early 1970s, to 40 percent in 1994, when the program was reauthorized. Current MEP estimates place the graduation rate at approximately 50 percent. MEP’s slow but steady work is carried out primarily through state grant programs and several special initiatives. One of those initiatives works toward creating an electronic records (educational) transfer system to replace the Migrant Student Record Transfer System (MSRTS) that was discontinued in 1994, consequently leaving no central source of information that can follow children from one place to another.

Growing need and declining funding streams create additional challenges. According to the National Association of State Directors of Migrant Education (NASDME) the Federal commitment is $358 million annually and serves more than half a million children in 50 states and Puerto Rico. However, the more families it serves, the more stretched its resources become and as the migrant population continues to grow, the less there is to go around. Already in 1994, the per-participant appropriation had declined by about $74 from 1981.

Updated 9/2014