Youth Employment in Agriculture

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Youth Employment in Agriculture


By: Ruth Samardick

Date: June 2000

Source: U.S. Department of Labor

About the Author: Survey statistician Ruth Samardick works for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy (OASP) within the U.S. Department of Labor. The Department of Labor is a cabinet department of the U.S. government. It is responsible for such duties as economic statistics, occupational safety, re-employment services, unemployment insurance benefits, and wage and hour standards.


During the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) commissioned a national study on various aspects of paid workers including field packers and supervisors of crop agriculture. Crop agricultural work is defined by the DOL as any field work in such areas as cash grains, field crops, fruit and vegetable products, nursery products, and silage and fodder. The National Agricultural Workers' Survey (NAWS) summarized such data as basic demographics, education, legal status, family size, and working conditions based on interviews with 13,380 workers in the United States between the years 1993 and 1998.

The fifth chapter of the DOL's "Report on the Youth Labor Force" discusses youth employment in agriculture. Young workers in agriculture traditionally have different characteristics from those of their counterparts in other industries. Consequently, different problems occur to them and different government regulations apply to them. Between the years 1993 and 1998, 951 youths age fourteen to seventeen were interviewed, and adult farm-working parents were interviewed about their children, who numbered 6,422 in all. NAWS asked questions concerning such subjects as age, gender, migration, place of birth, schooling, and work.


A demographic portrait of ten farmworkers can be drawn from the NAWS sample of 14- to 17-year-old respondents. Most teens who worked in agriculture were older—three-fourths of those between the ages of 14 and 17 who worked in the fields were aged 16 and 17. Like their adult counterparts, most (84 percent) teenage agricultural workers were young men.

Unlike the adult farmworker population, which was predominately (77 percent) foreign-born, most (52 percent) teen farmworkers were born in the United States. Most of the foreign-born minors working in agriculture did not come to this country as young children, but were recent arrivals. Of these foreign-born minor farmworkers, 3 in 4 (74 percent) came to the United States between the ages of 14 and 17, and 58 percent came at ages 16 or 17.

Many of the teens doing farmwork are de facto emancipated minors. More than one-half (54 percent) of the minor farmworkers do not live with a parent. Very few live without a parent but with some other member of their family. Overall, nearly half (48 percent) of the minor farmworker teenagers live in households without any member of their family.

The farmworker population is very poor—57 percent live in households below the Federal poverty threshold….

Migrant farmworkers have an even harder time surviving than do settled farmworkers. NAWS defines a migrant as a person who travels 75 miles or more to do or seek farmwork. By this definition, teens were less likely to be migrants than were adults (36 percent versus 51 percent). However, those teens who are migrants live in very difficult conditions, usually without family supervision. According to NAWS, 4 in 5 migrant teens (80 percent) were de facto emancipated minors—not living with any other family member. The vast majority (91 percent) of minor migrant teens were foreign-born….

Children with a migrant parent were more likely to work than were children whose parents are settled. Twenty-seven percent of all farmworkers' children live in a house with a migrant parent. However, 44 percent of children who work in the fields have a migrant parent, compared with just 27 percent of the children who do not work. (Again, because only 6 percent of the children are farmworkers, the average for all children tends toward the average of the 94 percent of children who do not work, despite significant differences between the two groups.) Children who work in the fields are more likely to migrate than are children who do not do farmwork. In almost all cases (99 percent), children who work in the fields accompany their migrant parent….

Almost one-fourth of school-age children of farmworkers are behind in grade or have dropped out of school. Of the children of farmworkers, those who worked in the fields were more likely to be behind in school. Only 62 percent of children who did farmwork were learning at grade level compared with 78 percent of those who did not do farmwork. Twenty-two percent of the children doing farmwork were behind in grade and 16 percent had dropped out. While working in the fields may have affected their progress in school, children doing farmwork also had higher levels of other factors associated with being behind in school—they were more likely to be foreign-born and to be migrants….


Researchers with the DOL's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) went to worksites of farmworkers to administer an employer-based survey and later administered a more detailed survey at locations convenient to the workers. With respect to NAWS, the researchers found that between the years 1993 and 1998 about seven percent of all farmworkers were between the ages of fourteen and seventeen years—or about 126,000 of 1.8 million U.S. farmworkers.

Other groups have documented youth employment in agricultural labor. For instance, the National Farm Workers Ministry estimates that, as of 2005, from 300,000 to 800,000 adolescent farmworkers work in the United States. Working hours for these children during the busy harvesting season can be over fourteen hours per day, seven days a week. According to Human Rights Watch, based on a 2000 survey, one-third of youth farmworkers receive less than the minimum wage.

The Fair Labor Standards Act makes it legal for any child age twelve years or older to perform agricultural work. Besides long working hours, conditions in agriculture have the potential to be dangerous for youths because of their lack of working experience. Consequently, even though youths make up only about seven percent of all farmworkers, their rate of fatalities is about forty percent, and about 100,000 youth workers report agricultural-based injuries each year.

Children who work in agricultural labor are also in increased danger of illness. According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, Inc., pesticide exposure is more toxic to children than to adults due to their small size. Children's smaller body mass tolerates smaller amounts of chemicals than do larger adult bodies. The U.S. federal government sets standards for pesticide residues in food that are acceptable for children to eat. However, similar standards are not established for children working to harvest foods. As one example, the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consider children when limiting the amount of pesticides in food consumed by the public. However, the law excludes the EPA from considering occupational exposure to the same pesticides—that is, the law does not protect youth laborers who harvest these foods.

On the other hand, youth farmworkers are protected under various U.S. occupational health laws. For example, there are laws that require posting of notices about pesticide spraying. These postings state the minimum amount of time that workers must wait before they can safely return to the fields after spraying. However, both sides generally agree that youth farmworkers are exposed to higher dosages of pesticides through the foods they harvest than are the consumers of those foods.

Before 1997, the federal government had performed little research and enacted few laws on youth employment in agriculture. In fact, according to Associated Press science editor Matt Crenson, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health spent $2.5 million for research into child farmworker injuries in the same year the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service spent $700 million on livestock and crop studies. Beginning in 1997, however, the federal government began devoting more time and effort to occupational health and safety research on youth farmworkers. In addition, several organizations were formed around that same time to advocate better working conditions for youths employed in agriculture. For instance, the Children in the Fields Campaign was created by the Child Labor Coalition in 1997 to help protect working children.

In the past, most agricultural jobs were performed on small family farms. Youths worked on the farm as unpaid family workers. However, paid agricultural employment for youths has increased as the number of small family farms continues to decrease while large corporate farms increase. Adults working in agriculture within the United States are paid some of the lowest wages of any working group. Youths engaged in agriculture are paid even less. To make matters worse, youths working in agriculture face problems such as loss of educational opportunities, poor living and working conditions, separation from parents, and exposure to occupational hazards.



Griffith, David Craig. Working Poor: Farmworkers in the United States. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1995.

Human Rights Watch. Fingers to the Bone: United States Failure to Protect Child Farmworkers. New York: Human Rights Watch, 2000.

Levine, Marvin J. Children for Hire: The Perils of Child Labor in the United States. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.

Web sites

Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. "Child Labor—Children in the Fields: The Inequitable Treatment of Child Farmworkers." 〈〉 (accessed June 25, 2006).

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. "Report on the Youth Labor Force." 〈〉 (accessed June 25, 2006).

Crenson, Matt. Pangaea. "Pesticides May Jeopardize Child Farmworkers' Health." December 9, 1997 〈〉 (accessed June 25, 2006).

National Farm Worker Ministry. "Childhood and Child Labor." 〈〉 (accessed June 25, 2006).