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Interview with Norma Flores Lopez, Farmworker Advocate & Child Rights Activist

Meet the new Board Member of Global March Against Child Labour from the North America Region, Ms.Norma Flores Lopez. Norma Flores Lopez is the Governance and Development/Collaboration Manager at East Coast Migrant Head Start Project and serves as the chair of the Child Labor Coalition’s Domestic Issues Committee.  She has long been an active advocate for migrant farmworker children’s rights and continues to raise awareness on issues affecting farmworkers and creating meaningful engagement with the farmworker community in her current role. Having spent a childhood full of struggle in the agricultural farms, Norma has come a long way and is today one of the most influential personalities, in the world of farmworkers' rights. Despite her packed schedule, Norma spoke to Global March Secretariat on her life, her work and her aspirations for the future generation, on the occasion of the International Day of the Girl Child. Read below the full text of the interview:

Q1. Tell us about your family. How did you come to United States and how did you end up becoming a farm worker right from your childhood?

I grew up as part of a large migrant farmworker family in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, home to one of the largest migrant farmworker communities in the US.

 My father's parents owned a small farm in Mexico, but when the economy took a downturn and cost them their farm, they were forced to travel to the United States in search of agricultural work. My grandparents would travel between Mexico and the United States, following the harvests to ensure they had enough to feed their children. As the oldest child and US-born, my father was sent to work, sometimes by himself, to American farms so that his family could survive. Although he loved school, he was only able to complete the 6th grade before he had to dedicate his time to work.

Similarly, my mother grew up in incredible poverty in Mexico and needed to work at a young age to help her parents make ends meet. As border security began to tighten, my mother, who was born in Texas, was sent as a child into the United States with other US-born family to work in the fields and would send her meager earnings back to her mother. Her families' needs forced her out of school by the 2nd grade.

Without an education, they were condemned to a lifetime of low-paying agricultural work. My parents eventually met while working in the fields of Illinois and married. While they built a home in Texas, they migrated with their five children to work in the onion fields of Colorado, apple orchards of Indiana, corn fields of Iowa, asparagus fields of Michigan and other back-breaking crops across the country. US child labor laws permitted us to work starting at the age of twelve, and my parents needed as many hands of possible in an attempt to pull the family out of the poverty. Besides, if we weren't in the fields with them, where would they leave their five daughters? They could not afford to pay for child care, and leaving us by ourselves on a migrant camp could prove to be more dangerous. They believed their daughters were safer close to them.

I worked to help my parents from the age of nine through high school, when I was finally able to get a paid internship.

Q2. What was your experience of working in farms, and how did it affect your childhood and your studies?

Although US child labor laws require children to be at least twelve to work, my first memories of working in the fields was when I was nine. During the week, we attended school, but there was no one to watch me and my sisters on the weekends. Instead of leaving us by ourselves in the rural migrant housing, they had us accompany them into the apple orchards. At first, we stayed in the car, which would sit on the outskirts of the orchards. As the day wore on and we became stir-crazy, we would play outside the car, trying our best to stay out of the way as the tractors whizzed by carrying heavy bins filled with apples or spraying a fine mist that we didn't realize were pesticides.

My parents, which worried that we were out of sight, decided to keep us close by having us help them with little tasks. We would bring them buckets or jugs of water as they worked to pick as many apples as possible. We would then race each other to see who could fill up the bucket with the apples on the ground around the trunk of the trees. By the end of the day, we were picking the low-hanging apples to help my tired parents fill the bins quicker so that we could go home. What began as simple helpful tasks and games ended up unintentionally as our first experiences working in agriculture. Week after week, throughout the apple harvest season, my parents were not able to find free child care, so we returned to the orchards and continued to fill the bins with apples we picked.

We did not complain because we saw how hard our parents worked to feed our family and buy us what we needed. We felt proud to know we were able to ease the burden of our parents and contribute financially to our home. The family's poverty was no secret to us.

As I got older, my responsibilities grew. Once it was legal for me to work, I was expected to work for the grower that was providing our family with migrant housing. It was no longer weekends and on holidays -- it was full time and with few restrictions. I began to work 10- to 12-hour days, often seven days a week, and at the peak of the harvest, going as long as three weeks straight without any days off.

The work was incredibly hard, especially for a young child. I had to perform back-breaking work at the pace of the adult workers, regardless if it was a hot summer afternoon or cold, rainy morning. I had to use sharp tools made for adults, and was exposed to large amounts of chemicals with no protective gear to my name.

The migrant lifestyle made it difficult to set roots in any community and added great difficulty to my education. In many farmworker families, investing in a young girl’s education is not a priority when the family has limited resources and great needs. I was fortunate to have parents that valued my education and made great sacrifices to make sure my sisters and I were able to attend school while it was in session, regardless of the state we were living in. I attended two --and sometimes even three-- different schools each year, getting pulled out and re-enrolled into schools in different states as needed. The interrupted school year made keeping up with my coursework difficult, since each school had a different state curriculum and requirements. Just as I felt I was mastering a subject, it was time to leave and start all over again in another school. I required special attention from the schools to make sure I was able to make up the lost class time and turn in assignments needed to pass the school grade levels. I inherited my father’s love for learning and excelled in the classroom, but the constant interruptions and lack of resources kept me from many opportunities. I also saw how it proved to be too much for other children I grew up with in the fields, who went on to join the as many as 60 percent of farmworker youth that drop out of high school – four times the national average.

To help my family, I had to sacrifice not only my health and education, but also my childhood. The work commitment gave me little opportunity to have the experiences of many children across America. It wasn't just that I could not afford the latest trends, fun toys, or occasional luxuries my friends seem to enjoy -- I was not able to learn to swim; attend camps; or participate in extra-curricular activities as my peers. It was hard to realize that while I had to work in the fields alongside my family, others were enjoying their summer break alongside the beach with theirs.

Q3.  Thousands of children work in agricultural fields in USA. What do these children mostly grow and what kinds of hazards do they face while working in the fields?

Although agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries, as many as 300,000 children can be found working on American farms, growing and harvesting many of the fruits and vegetables enjoyed on kitchen tables every day. Young children can be found in many of the harvest crops, especially in harvests that pay families using the piece rate, including blueberries, asparagus, onions and even the hazardous tobacco harvest.

US child labor laws allow children as young as twelve work in the fields with little restrictions. These children work long hours in extreme weather conditions, where they are exposed to the high amounts of chemicals that are used on American farms. They work near and at times operate heavy machinery, and are given sharp tools to use with little to no safety training or protective gear.

To make matters worse, there is little enforcement of the protections put in place to keep children from harm on farms. As these children toil in rural areas, they are out of sight and many times out of mind for most Americans.

Q4. Do you think there's a need to strengthen awareness on child labour, especially for those working in agriculture sector?

In order to ensure the protections provided by the US child labor laws are extended to children working in agriculture, we need to create support for policy changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The biggest hurdle we are facing to strengthening the child labor laws is the lack of awareness by most Americans, especially policy leaders.  There is a misconception that child labor is an issue that happens abroad, outside of reach, and Americans remain oblivious to the child labor that is present in their own backyards. More people need to be educated on the human cost of the foods they consume each day, and the exploitation of child labor that is intricately involved in the American food production system.

However, it is not enough that we simply learn about the issue – we need ensure people are urging their Congressional representatives to act on behalf of children working in agriculture and close the current loophole in labor laws that permit the exploitation of the children of agricultural workers.

Q5. With the new estimates on child labour revealing that 70% of child labourers are in agriculture, do you think the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), will be able to achieve the target of eliminating child labour by 2025?

We have the ability to eliminate child labor tomorrow if we decided, as a global community, that this issue is paramount and urgent. There are enough resources and knowledge to address the root causes of child labor and improve the lives of millions of children. The Sustainable Development Goals can be successful in eliminating child labor by 2025 if they are able to garner enough support to make the necessary changes across the globe.

Q6. What would you like to change at a policy level in the USA to protect an promote the rights of vulnerable children engaged in child labour?

The US Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 outlines the protections needed to ensure that young children are kept out of dangerous employment, and instead, are able to focus on their education. Unfortunately, those protections were not extended to young children working in one of the most dangerous industries: agriculture. It is no surprise that this industry, which remains largely unregulated, employs some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, including the legal employment of young children. The lack of protections under the law perpetuates the disenfranchisement and exploitation of the farmworker community.

Congress needs to remove the exemption in the child labor laws that prevents children working in agriculture from receiving the same protections as all other children in America. They need to have limitations on the hours and the type of hazards they are exposed to so that they too can have a healthy, happy childhood with an opportunity to earn their diploma.

In addition, farmworker children desperately need more resources to ensure they are able to overcome the barriers they face in their education. When all the children of our country –regardless of their background—are able to succeed, we all succeed.

Q7. The upcoming Argentina Conference sets new expectations for the world to take accelerated action on ending child labour. If you will be present at the Conference, what will be your most pressing demand for the world leaders to end child labour by 2025?

I am very excited at the opportunity to present at the upcoming conference and bring attention to the plight of child laborers in the United States. The US plays an important role in the eradication of child labor around the world, but the American government has largely ignored its own issue and has failed to dedicate resources to eliminating child labor within its borders. It is important the US fulfill its role as a global leader in human rights by leading through example and honor its commitment to ILO Convention 182.

In addition, I want to highlight the great dreams, potential, and talent that is present among children of farmworker families. When given the opportunity, farmworker youth are able to thrive and become agents of change in their community. We could learn so much from their resiliency. We need to provide them with the protections and support all other children in America are afforded. Our investment into their future will have a positive impact for generations.

Q8. As a young advocate yourself, what advice would you give to the young people who want to make an impact in the world?

Dream big and lead with your hearts! Young leaders are able to breathe new life into stagnant campaigns and fresh perspectives that can inspire new winning strategies. They play a very important role in every social change movement and are our future. Do not underestimate the power and value you bring to the table of decision-makers.

But in order to make an impact in the world, it is not enough to have passion without an effective strategy! We need to make sure we are focusing on our energies and resources in the right places.