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COVID and Child Labor


That farm labor gets such a tiny amount of attention even from liberals is quite distressing. But the exploitation of these workers needs continued publicity through whatever megaphones we may have. With COVID, everything has gotten worse for these workers and that very much includes their children.

Throughout this year’s agricultural season, migrant farmworkers have struggled to find child care for young kids who would usually spend their days in classrooms.

More mothers are bringing their children with them to work as a result, community health providers say, or sending older school-age daughters to work in the fields — driving an increase in child labor — while they stay home to tend to younger siblings.

While child care access is a problem that has plagued many North Carolina parents during the pandemic, farmworker women face added barriers and risks. Migrant families in particular are financially vulnerable to a loss of employment due to the presence of a child, as they tend to have fewer labor protections and receive no economic assistance from federal stimulus packages. Women, who also face high rates of sexual harassment in the field, must shoulder the responsibility for caring for a child while knowing they are likely to be the first to be laid off.

Children who enter the field risk exposure to harmful pesticides — and those who take up jobs lose educational opportunities and are often stymied from future economic advancement.

The novel coronavirus pandemic shut down schools just as the agricultural season began, with salad greens emerging from the dirt and strawberries in need of plucking.

Simultaneously, almost half of all North Carolina’s child care centers closed their doors, adding to an already challenging pre-pandemic shortage in child care centers throughout the state — particularly in rural areas where many migrant farmworkers reside. By late July, as sweet corn, cucumbers and watermelons ripened while cradled in the state’s thick midsummer heat, one in four centers remained closed.

“We definitely have more children and families on the waitlist waiting for center-based services than we’ve had in the recent past,” said John Menditto, general counsel for the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, which provides holistic services for children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in North Carolina, including child care.

As I’ve stated many times, any natural disaster is in fact the natural world demonstrating the preexisting inequalities in the world and making them even more clear for all to see. Or at least, that would be the case if anyone even thought about these workers to begin with, which they mostly don’t.

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