For children of migrant workers, choice can be the field or the car

With nowhere else to go, farmworkers’ kids end up working beside their parents

Maria Seferino packs her family’s belongings at the Sakuma Brothers Farms labor camp at the end of berry season. From June to October, she picked berries with her husband seven days a week and relied on day care for their children. As many as 14 people at a time lived in this cramped one-room cabin.
Duk Hwae Kim

This is a companion piece to “Children at Work,” a Fault Lines episode premiering Friday, Oct. 25, at 9:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. PT on Al Jazeera America (with correspondent Wab Kinew, from producers Elizabeth Gorman and Jeremy Young).

“There’s an incentive for families to bring their kids out (to the fields). The kids’ bags (of onions) are counted toward their parents’ totals, thereby making them more productive.”

—Wab Kinew, Fault Lines correspondent

BURLINGTON, Wash. — Four-year-old Rosa Iselda Ramires painted her nails pink in the cluttered one-room cabin that she shared with eight to 13 others since June, when the berry season began at Sakuma Brothers Farms. Industrial plastic sheets taped to the ceiling trapped rain that leaked from the roof; a blue cooking flame burned in lieu of a heater. There was a communal bathroom used by dozens of farmworkers a short walk from the cabin, at the center of Labor Camp 2. When her parents were at work in the berry fields, Rosa and her three siblings went to professional day care if they were lucky and public child-care subsidies came through. When they didn’t, the kids spent all day at the home of a babysitter who charged their parents about $1 an hour. 

Lack of child care and dangerous conditions in migrant labor camps lead many farmworkers to take their children along with them to the fields. The younger ones may play or wait in the car; the older ones often end up picking crops themselves. A 2010 report by Human Rights Watch found that “hundreds of thousands of children are working as hired laborers in agriculture.” Under federal and most state laws, children as young as 12 are permitted to do agricultural work, with few limitations or protections.

During the summer berry harvest, when neither school nor Head Start (federally funded preschool for low-income children) is in session, “you do see way more kids in the fields,” said Andrea Schmitt, an attorney at Columbia Legal Services who represented the Sakuma workers in a court action to remove security guards from the labor camp. “This is completely a social problem, not a problem of individual parenting, but there are a lot of parents who are bringing their kids into the fields when they’re 8. It’s because any extra hands are needed to make a living and because they don’t have child care.” 

“We heard about young children collecting blueberries — 3 and 5 years old or 7 years old,” Hilda Solis, a former U.S. secretary of labor, told Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines. “And the rationale was that their hands are so tender and small that they wouldn’t crush the blueberries.” The child-labor legislation she advocated during President Barack Obama’s first term, the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment, was never passed.

Since 2005, Rosa’s parents, Maria Seferino and Cornelio Ramires, have picked strawberries, blueberries and blackberries in Washington state from June to October and worked in the orange groves of Delano, Calif., the rest of the growing year.

This berry season, they picked seven days a week, 11 hours a day, at Sakuma Brothers Farms. Where to put their four kids — who range in age from 6 months to 8 years — was a constant challenge. “Sometimes we qualify for child care, but not every time,” Ramires said. 

Farmworker Cornelio Ramires and his 4-year-old daughter, Rosa Iselda, in their labor-camp cabin.
E. Tammy Kim for Al Jazeera America

Like many farmworkers, he and his wife have had trouble applying for and retaining public child-care subsidies because of their shifting residency and fluctuating income. Applicants for child-care assistance must submit employment-verification documents and pay stubs, none of which are designed for seasonal workers earning per-pound pay rather than an hourly wage or salary. A single paycheck may not reflect reality: In 2010 the median annual income for farmworkers nationwide was less than $19,000.

“If we don’t qualify, we pay $25 per day for child care to someone who does day care in her home. It’s not very good, but that’s our only option,” Ramires said.

Ramon Torres, who was fired by Sakuma in September, worked long hours so his wife could stay in the labor camp with Isabel, their 7-year-old daughter. They did not qualify for a child-care subsidy because they had made too much money at the peak of berry season. “It’s not uncommon to see a family have to make a very hard choice and have their children in the vehicle while they work,” said Cleofas Rodriguez Jr., executive director of the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association, which assists and trains rural Head Start providers who coordinate with in-home day-care facilities to provide 12-hour and weekend coverage for farmworkers’ kids.

These caregivers must plan for the worst, Rodriguez said. “We do have families living in the shadows, (asking) ‘Am I going to be able to pick up my children after school?’ Our programs, like most community-based organizations working primarily with Latino families, make that plan of action in case the family is picked up and put into removal.”

At the Sakuma farm, immigration status — and all it entails in terms of wages and legal rights — has come to separate domestic workers, or immigrant laborers already in the U.S., from guest workers on H-2A visas (short-term visas for temporary agricultural laborers). Indeed, the groups even live in separate labor camps.

As reported by Al Jazeera, the farm brought in guest workers this season for the first time, a reaction, worker advocates say, to labor strikes by domestic employees. The strikers have accused the farm of underpayment and retaliation and called for a boycott of its products — fresh berries sold under the Driscoll’s and Berry Time labels as well as Haagen-Dazs ice cream, which, they contend, purchases Sakuma strawberries. The farm has denied any wrongdoing. “The labor unrest is not about Sakuma,” Ryan Sakuma, president of the farm, wrote in an open letter. “It’s about (outside) labor activists’ opposition to a federal guest-worker program.” (Neither he nor other farm representatives responded to requests for comment.)

Family attachments are a major difference between seasonal workers, who arrive with their spouses and children, and guest workers, who show up alone. Working parents tailor their migration not only to the farming calendar but also to the children’s needs. Seferino and Ramires, for example, feel less at home in Washington, “but it’s too hot for the kids to stay in the fields” through the California summer, Ramires said. “And children should not take care of other children in the camp.”

“These families, in their cultures, are always together,” said Kathy Barnard, a lawyer at Schwerin Campbell Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt who litigated on behalf of the Sakuma workers in state court. “They work together. They live together. So the parents are around the children all the time. Most Anglo-Americans would like to spend more time with their kids and their spouse, but we have a culture where a lot of the time you are just out doing things.”

When the striking berry pickers decided to form a workers’ committee, a kind of informal union, they had to choose a name. They wanted to be known as something more than the Sakuma workers, so they went with their gut: Families United for Justice.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter