via Teen Vogue, March 13, 2023
While most kids looked forward to summer break, José Velázquez Castellano did not.
An undocumented immigrant and the son of a single mother who had immigrated to the US from Mexico at age 17, Castellano spent his summers working in the scorching-hot fields of North Carolina. When he was eight, he took a job picking blueberries. By his teens, Castellano had moved on to picking tobacco to pay for new school supplies.
On the farm, workers were paid by the bucket, which Castellano and his fellow child farmworkers struggled to carry. The days were long and, he tells Teen Vogue, when he got home from the tobacco fields his body was so weary he couldn’t bring himself to go outside and play. His feet, he recalls, felt like “concrete bricks.”
As is the case for many tobacco pickers, Castellano felt the effects of nicotine poisoning, which can cause vomiting, dizziness, and breathing problems. But even his meager $7/hour salary helped his mom, also a farmworker, pay the bills.
Children were treated no differently than adults, Castellano recalls, and even then, at his young age, he understood that no kid should be forced to work under the conditions he faced. “I knew immediately that I should not have been there. But I also knew that if I wasn’t, who was going to help my mother pay?” Castellano explains. “It was a dilemma: You’re not supposed to be there, but if you’re not there, then you’re losing out on the money.”
Agricultural work, like the kind Castellano did, is a glaring exception to US child labor laws outlined in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA). The act sets age limits for jobs deemed hazardous, and caps working hours for children younger than age 14. But inspectors still catch companies violating these laws, including well-known franchise restaurants where minors have worked more hours than permitted.
In February, Wisconsin-based Packers Sanitation Services Inc. paid $1.5 million in penalties after the Department of Labor (DOL) uncovered that the company had hired 102 children, from 13 to 17 years old, in meatpacking jobs where they worked with hazardous chemicals and dangerous machinery. And last July, an Alabama plant that makes car parts was accused of hiring kids as young as 12 in a report by Reuters. In these instances, the government at least had some recourse to punish violators.
In fiscal year 2021, the DOL uncovered 2,819 minors who were employed in violation of child labor laws, which resulted in around $3.4 million in civil penalties. A federal judge also issued penalties against that Alabama plant in late September, which included ordering the company to sanction management responsible for any violations and provide employee training on compliance with child labor laws.
The plant released a statement saying it “takes seriously its responsibility to fully comply with all applicable laws and regulations” and that it “does not condone the employment of underage workers at its facilities and has never knowingly employed minors to work at its facilities.”