High in Colorado’s fertile San Luis valley, the collision between Americans’ demand for cheap food and the reliance on cheap labour – including children as young as 12 – comes into stark relief. At nearly 2,500 metres (8,000ft) above sea level, the alluvial plain, known for vegetable production, lies far from the turmoil of Washington DC, where child labour laws have long been a flashpoint.
Farmers have grown vegetables here for generations, including for the US potato market, which supports, from cultivation to consumer, about 714,000 jobs and $34bn (£27bn) in wages. As well as potatoes, there are carrots and lettuce – produce that requires a high degree of manual labour.
At rates of about $16 an hour, that labour may be from local people and continue down through generations. More likely, they are people coming from Mexico, Central America or South America on temporary work visas or as undocumented migrants. During the October harvest, they may be from the Navajo Native American reservation. The overwhelming majority (78%) of the agricultural workers identify as Hispanic/Latino.
The work, especially in the lettuce fields, is arduous, requiring lines of workers to move up and down the rows, hoeing and later picking lettuce heads, often from 5am to 3pm, when the heat on this high-altitude plain between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains begins to soar.
For Jacqueline Aguilar, whose father came from Mexico as a teenager and worked his whole life in the fields until his death last year, the work is, in a sense, traditional. From the age of 12, she worked alongside him.
Now 21, she recently returned from an internship in Washington with the Child Labor Coalition, one of several lobbying groups fighting efforts by 10 Republican-led states to roll back a century of protection laws restricting child labour.
These include expanding permissible work hours, broadening the types of jobs child workers are permitted to do, and limiting employers’ liability for injuries, illnesses or workplace fatalities. The laws broadly make it easier for children aged 14 to 17 to work longer and later – and in occupations that were previously off-limits.
However, Colorado is not one of these states. First, the Democrats hold the governorship, as well as majorities in the state house and senate. And second, it already allows children to work.
Children as young as 12 can work an unlimited number of hours in agriculture – so long as they do not miss school. In the potato-sorting warehouses, the minimum age is 16 because it is deemed “hazardous work”.
In Washington, Aguilar was amazed to find she was the only person of colour in the room. She points out that the US manual labour force is now in effect “Spanish”, to use a common umbrella term.
“I think Republicans are in denial that white people don’t want to work manual labour any more,” Aguilar says at the petrol station in Center, a farm town in the middle of the valley. “So they say, ‘let’s just send in the kids.’”
According to a 2018 Government Accountability Office report, more than half of work-related fatalities for children in the US happen in the agriculture sector, where one child employee dies roughly every three days. A separate study, from the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, found that 33 children are injured working on farms every day.
Outstanding investigations include the deaths of three 16-year-olds in Mississippi, Missouri and Wisconsin, including Duvan Tomas Perez, a Guatemalan boy who was killed working in a poultry plant; Michael Schuls, from Wisconsin, who was killed working at a sawmill, and Will Hampton, killed working at a landfill site. But with only about 800 investigators, federal labour authorities are limited in their ability to crack down on abuses and poor conditions.
Investigations have also exposed child labour in factories supplying parts to Hyundai and Kia in Alabama; at slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants in Nebraska and Minnesota; and at fast-food chains including McDonald’s in Pittsburgh and Dunkin’ Donuts in Massachusetts.
The investigations have resulted in $6.6m in fines for employers, an 87% rise on a year earlier.
Mhia Cazares was 16 when, picking lettuce in the Colorado fields last year, a truck rolled forward and back over her, injuring her spine. She was probably spared a fatal injury because the ground was soft after rain.
“If it had been dry, the driver of the lettuce machine would have crushed me,” she says. “The guy panicked, so it was on me for five minutes. I thought, ‘by the time my mom gets here, I’m going to be dead.’”
Her injury kept her off school, so she lost friends, and there were rounds of visits to doctors. Then there was the legal fight for compensation. “It’s been a long process. I’m constantly in pain. It’s changed my lifestyle – and my mental health.”
She has sued her employer. This summer, Colorado passed a law making it easier for injured minors to sue employers for child labour violations.
Mhia’s mother, Vanessa Cazares, who also worked in Center’s lettuce fields as a teenager, says she did not want her daughter to follow in her footsteps, but adds: “She wanted the experience.”
“It’s work, it’s money, and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to provide for your family,” says Cazares.
“But I don’t want them to do what we had to do. There are other opportunities out there, so go to school and get your grades.”
In the baking fields of Colorado, the conflict between child labour protection and economic need is clear. For Aguilar’s family and friends, working in the fields has long been normal in an area with few other opportunities.
“In my home and in my culture, it’s normalised to work young. We need to help our families,” she says. “I don’t want to be making things worse for them but I’d like to see more people of colour advocating for what we’re connected to. There needs to be change.”
A bill before Congress, the children’s act for responsible employment and farm safety (Care Act), aims to tighten up on loose rules on minimum age, working hours and hazardous conditions for children working on farms.
The bill was first introduced in 2009 by Lucille Roybal-Allard, a Democrat representative for California from 1993 to January this year. It failed, as did similar efforts in 2013, 2017 and 2019. The bill was subsequently reintroduced last year.
But these efforts to tighten regulations concern Cazares and others. “A lot of families may not be financially stable. I understand they’re worried about children, but money controls the world,” she says.
For farm owners, the need for immigrant and child labour is beginning to change due to several factors. Heavy extraction from a shrinking aquifer beneath the valley has pushed up water prices, causing some farmers to switch from lettuce production to potatoes. But potato production is down, too, from about 30,000 hectares (75,000 acres) to nearer 21,000.
“The only way to get into sustainability and use less water is to farm less, and that’s hard for the community and the farmers,” says Jim Ehrlich, director of a Colorado potato growers organisation. “It’s going to hurt.”
Demand for warehouse labour to sort potatoes is sinking, too, as farmers start using AI-trained robots. The robots try to match each potato on the conveyor belt to 100,000 stored images. Where a match fails, the potato is removed by a robotic arm, reducing the need for hired potato pickers by 25%.
As the technology improves, demand for labour will fall further, and the tradition of children working in the fields, even on summer jobs, is declining.
Jeff McCullough, of the Spud Seller farm, believes that young people can be retained in farming through the use of AI because “they understand it better”. “The next generation of younger people just aren’t prepared to do those [manual] jobs,” he adds.
The complexity of Colorado’s manual labour supply, the changing nature of agriculture and the impact of the climate crisis may mean that the area’s use of child labour in agriculture will eventually die out. But this does not resolve the immediate dilemma for the child workers of the San Luis valley.
“I was only working in the fields because I needed to buy myself food and stuff for school,” Aguilar says. “The labour force here is Spanish – from Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Guatemala – like it is in most of the US. Without the Spanish, this world would literally stop.
“But people don’t want to accept that we work jobs no one else wants to work. It’s another form of slavery, but one for the modern times.”