Farmworker advocates push civic activism at Elon University, promote justice for migrant farm workers

Marlena Chertock

APRIL 19, 2011

Peter Eversoll, Norma Flores López and Emily Drakage spoke about advocacy for farmworkers and their children on Tuesday night in Yeager. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

The blueberries or sweet potatoes you eat could have been picked by a migrant child worker just 20 minutes away from Elon.

About 400,000 to 500,000 children of farmworkers work in the U.S. agricultural industry.

Three advocates for migrant workers and children spoke at Elon University on Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Yeager. Emily Drakage and Norma Flores López work at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. that works to improve the quality of life for seasonal workers and their families. And Peter Eversoll works with Migrant Education, is on the board of N.C. Field and started Foto Pueblo with Drakage, an organization that supplies images of farmworkers to non-profits.

A ten-minute film that explained agricultural work and children was shown before the question-and-answer session began.

The exploitation and danger in agricultural work

Agricultural work is full of exploitation and abuse, according to Drakage, the N.C. Regional Coordinator for Children in the Fields Campaign. It’s dangerous work with difficult working conditions. People have to work in hot temperatures and often don’t have access to water or bathrooms.

Children account for 20 percent of all farm work fatalities in the U.S.

“No child should be dying on farms in the U.S.” said Drakage,

Pesticides are often sprayed directly onto the fields while children and workers are there. Children also have to use sharp tools.

A legislative loophole

The 1938 Fair Labors Standards Act helped eradicate child labor. There were very few child labor laws in U.S. before then.

“But agriculture is exempt from that act,” said López, the director of AFOP’s Children in the Fields Campaign. “Child labor laws don’t apply to agriculture. We feel it’s a very outdated law.”

Drakage called it a loophole in the law.

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

This issue is a very personal one for López. She grew up as a migrant farmworker and was one of the success stories by graduating high school and college, she said. Her parents are working in agriculture in Texas and Iowa.

López changed her major in her senior year from physics and a minor in math to communications because she realized how important the issue is and how passionate she is about it, she said.

Child labor still exists

Growers are not required to document the number or age of children who work on their fields, Drakage said. But from research and going to the fields, she’s seen children as young as five or some 14-year-olds traveling and working on their own, without parents.

Children often join their parents to work on the farms because there’s nothing legally stopping them. Kids also have a natural instinct to help their family, Drakage said.

“That’s good, but school often takes the backseat,” she said. “What we’re trying to make sure is kids are focused in school and able to get an education.”

There should be no exception, according to Drakage. All kids should be treated and protected equally and have access to education and opportunity.

Low pay, limited options

The food industry in the agricultural business takes two-thirds of the money earned, farmers make 23 percent of the dollar and workers make seven cents per dollar, according to Eversoll, who has been involved in youth education for two years. He teaches photography to migrant farm children. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

There’s even more incentive for children to work because migrant workers earn very little, so the more people working means more income.

The average income for a migrant family is $15,000, which is well below the poverty line. Their salary has not increased in a few decades, in spite of inflation.

The food industry prospers the most in the agricultural business, taking two-thirds of the money earned and workers make seven cents per dollar, according to Eversoll, who has been involved in youth education for two years. He teaches photography to migrant farm children.

“The kids use photography and video for personal expression and advocacy,” he said. “It’s better them telling their story than me.”

There are more justified and dignified ways to produce food, he said.

“We can change the structure,” he said. “There are ways to more evenly distribute the money.”

People should be grateful for their food source and treat the folks who help put food on their table with dignity, he said.

Advocating for migrant workers, pushing for change

One step to improve the working conditions for these people is equalizing child labor laws, though that’s not solution to the whole problem, Drakage said.

Students and members of the community can get involved and help. People should write to their congressmen and push for legislation ensuring equality for farmworkers and their children, have clothing and furniture drives for farmworkers, educate others about the issue and have initiatives on campus.

One of the biggest problems has been lack awareness of the issue, López said.

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

“We need to make sure these kids are being protected just like all other kids are protected,” she said.

Betty Morgan, associate professor of political science, organized the event. She wanted to raise awareness of migrant workers and their children among the student body, she said.

Morgan teaches a public administration senior seminar that focuses on these issues and has been working closely with AFOP for a few years.

Next fall, she plans on showing the 1960s Edward R. Murrow film about farmworkers called “Harvest of Shame” with a recent film called “The Harvest.”

“I hope it will start a big dialogue on what has changed or stayed the same and what we can do,” she said.


Drakage on advocacy for farmworkers and children

Drakage on equalizing child labor laws

López on artificially low food prices in U.S.

More video clips to come.


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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

One response to “Farmworker advocates push civic activism at Elon University, promote justice for migrant farm workers”

  1. John Randolph says :

    Thank you Ms. Chertock for being an advocate for our migrant families.

    I am at the point in my life that I see the need for a radical yet peaceful means to bring these two governments to their senses concerning immigration and narco violence.

    Yes, activism and action.

    Here is a story about me.

    I am planting seeds while watching, and praying for change.

    John Randolph 970 626-3105

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