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A former teen farm worker on new bills that threaten to weaken child-labor laws

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

And now we turn to Maria Lopez Gonzalez. She is the deputy director of El Pueblo, a nonprofit based in North Carolina that advocates for migrant workers' rights. As a child, Maria worked on farms. She would put together bales of hay or pick blueberries alongside her parents, but it's the long days of working on a hog farm that stays with her.

MARIA LOPEZ GONZALEZ: The smell stays with you. I remember growing up and my dad's hands always smelling that - like the smell of the feed, and the smell just lingers. And I hated it because the bus would pick us up from school, and there was no hiding that part of us. And now I don't care. I don't mind it. I'm not ashamed of it. But at the time, I wanted nothing more than to be like everyone else and not have - like, not only be extremely different in the way that I looked, being, you know, brown and Latina and immigrant but to having everybody know what my parents did and what I did. And just the impact seeped into every part of our life.

RASCOE: Did the people at the farms know that, you know, you were a kid, and you were working?

LOPEZ GONZALEZ: So at the hog farm, they did. It was a very small farm, maybe less than 20 employees, probably. And we would be paid under the table. And he was a decent person, the farmer. He really cared about the children that came to the farm. And I think to a degree, he understood that the parents just had no other choice. And so when we were younger, maybe younger than 13, probably, none of us were paid. And then once we were around 13, 14, 15, we started asking to get paid. And that's kind of when we had to take it seriously and, like, actually work and not just be there following our parents around.

RASCOE: You know, so now you're doing this work. You're doing the advocacy work. When you're talking to farm workers, what are they asking for? And especially, are you also talking to some of those young people who are out there on these farms, as well?

LOPEZ GONZALEZ: Yeah. So one group gave us a long list, and the things ranged from a washer and dryer that works on the farm, ability to send my kids to college, ability to unionize. And then at other times, their wishes were very simple. They were just like, we just want to be respected. We just want to be treated with dignity. We just want to have a world where we can work and be safe and feel comfortable. And with the youth, I have felt that with people that grew up very similar to me, you don't realize that it's a difficult situation you're living in. You don't realize, oh, I want something different for my future in the same context that maybe their parents do. It's just kind of you're part of life.

RASCOE: We just spoke to Representative Greg Casar. He's introduced the Child Labor Exploitation Accountability Act that aims to hold corporations accountable for exploiting children working in the food industry. Do you think these kind of laws, if they're passed, would be enough to deal with some of these issues?

LOPEZ GONZALEZ: We need them, but I don't think it's enough because there's always going to be a way around it. And agriculture just has so many exceptions and other areas of their labor laws that it's so easily manipulated. There are children right now in a lot of the meat processing plants in North Carolina who just work with false papers. The employers know they work with false papers. And they're able to get around E-Verify, or they're not even required to use E-Verify the way that other workplaces are. And they'll do kind of these routine checks where people will find out, hey, there's going to be some sort of inspection. Don't come to work tomorrow - to make sure that children aren't being caught working there. And so there's always a way around it.

RASCOE: But do you have any thoughts on what needs to happen to stop the exploitation of young migrant workers?

LOPEZ GONZALEZ: Yes. I think that we need to want increased pay. We need to have stronger standard protections for workers in the fields, for heat standards. There needs to be access to water. There needs to be access to bathrooms. There needs to be access to shade. There needs to be training on what to do to respond if their coworkers have fallen ill. We need to have better insurance policies. We need to have access to transportation in these rural areas. We need to have employers providing interpreters or working with clinics that can have interpretation for the workers. We need to have just better protections all across the board so that people want to work here, so that people feel safe and so that people are being paid enough. And that will make it where we don't need to put children in these fields.

RASCOE: That's Maria Lopez Gonzalez. She is a former teen farm worker and immigrant rights advocate with the nonprofit El Pueblo. Thank you so much for joining us.

LOPEZ GONZALEZ: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBOHANDS SONG, "IKIGAI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.