While many Americans know that a largely Latino labor force harvests food in the US, few likely know that some 400,000 children also pick crops every year, too. The Harvest explores this even more troubling aspect of the US food system—its exploitation of child labor. Many people are unaware of the decades of struggle necessary to eliminate child labor in the US—through the labor movement and eventually codified in law—but even more unknown is that agricultural work has always been exempt, not only from overtime, safety protection, and originally Social Security, but also from child labor prohibitions.
Three Latino minors are presented in The Harvest: 12-year old Zulema, 14-year old Perla, and 16-year old Victor. These youth and their families harvest onions, strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, apples, and peppers, in many states, including Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Michigan, and Ohio. The lives of these youth are similar to many others: they primp and prime for the approval of peers (Zulema delays her family’s morning departure by taking extra time to put on makeup before heading to the fields), take care of and play with their siblings, help their families, rebel against their parents, attend school, and express discomfort with their lives. But, they also are unable to attend school regularly, they work with—and in some ways for—their parents for paid employment, move regularly, and in the case of Zulema express having goals, but no dreams. Thus, even though their lives are similar to many working class youth—getting jobs at earlier ages than their middle-class peers—they are even more stressed by economic forces, family pressure, and dislocation.
It might be easy to blame parents for children who are working in the fields. But, as The Harvest shows, the relationships children have with their parents is far more complicated than one might imagine. These parents want their children to goto school, be successful, and not remain migrant farm workers. And, the parents often do not even ask their children to help out (at least initially). Victor describes how he decided to pick crops to help his family—on a slow day, he estimates that he picks approximately 1,500 pounds of tomatoes. The pressures felt by these youth seem to come from all sides. Their families have expectations for them, which are themselves contradictory: get an education, but also help the family out. Society wants them to work hard, follow orders, goto school. Peers want them to hang-out, have a consistent presence, and do kid stuff. Schools want them to show up (or, seemingly, just drop out and stop causing so much administrative trouble). Perla wants to be consistent at school, but since her family moves so much, she can’t finish each year. Her grades do not always transfer from one school to the other and she had to re-do an entire year because of it.
The day by day grind takes its toll, even on the most optimistic. All sorts of small problems emerge to make things difficult. Their parents develop sore bodies and injuries far earlier in life. Sicknesses that happen without medical insurance lead to periods of unemployment. Unavailable work leads families to be economically stranded. These factors compound on top of each other, causing occupational entrapment, for the parents and children. Since the children have a hard time finishing school (there’s a very high drop-out rate for the children of migrant farmworkers), children have to rely on employment for survival as opposed to higher education and professional jobs.
The work that the children do is physically challenging, even for adults. The work is harder than they expect it to be, even though they eventually build up strength and endurance for it. Their knees get sore from kneeling, their backs get sore from bending over, and they get exhausted from the heat and lack of food. Victor washed his arms at the end of each workday with bleach because soap couldn’t remove the chemicals that coat his arms as he works. These chemicals (pesticides, plastics, etc.) also make it hard to breath and remain standing. In fact, an estimated 300,000 farmworkers suffer from pesticide poisoning every year. This is where the narratives of “hard work” and meritocracy in the American mythos are crucial to analyze. So, what exactly is the benefit (for them, at least) of getting poor, working class Latino kids to work hard? It seems to train people to tolerate their lot in life. Systematically, the myth of “hard work” benefits those in power. Of course, the wealthy rarely do physically strenuous or dangerous work (yes, they may have to think, but it mainly happens in air-conditioned buildings, in cushioned-chairs, with nice salaries), so this is really a by-product of ideological class warfare.
Ultimately, the consequence of using children as farmworkers seems to benefit agribusiness elites more than anyone else (even American consumers). The average farmworker family earns less than $17,500 per year—hardly enough to pay for the expensive cost of seasonal relocation, children, and growing medical bills. This low salary is most pronounced, as the farmworkers describe going to supermarkets. They see the very crops they picked (maybe even personally picked), but find it nearly impossible to afford. A simply calculation would show that an infinitesimal part of each item’s cost went to the migrant who picked it. This suggests a very clear problem: in order to deal with the economic need of families to have their children financially help out (and child labor itself), we have to deal with the exploitative conditions under which migrants toil. This does not necessarily mean raising the costs of food, since the profits of middle-men corporations and other agribusiness interests are incredible. Even a humble portion of this profit could be redistributed to migrant farmworkers and improve their living conditions. Of course, capitalists are always hesitant to make workers “too comfortable”, since it’ll increase worker bargaining power. But, it’s a struggle that is worth fighting. Unfortunately, the Harvest does not explore the rich network of social movements, farmworker unions, solidarity organizations, social workers, and others who work to achieve political reforms and economic parity. As the one downside to the film, its absence might leave viewers feeling angry and powerless, whereas the reality of farmworker resistance can itself be inspiring and hopeful.
Themes: migration, immigration, Latinos, youth, work, food