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Field of Broken Dreams

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Since the 1970s, there have been two very different sets of rules for young workers in this country: one that applies to teenage agricultural workers, and one for everyone else.

"Most teenagers in America can't get a job until they turn 16," says Norma Flores López, director of the Children in the Fields Campaign at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. But when it comes to farm work, kids as young as 12 who are not in school can start working for an unlimited number of hours alongside adults -- as long as they have parental permission.

"During the summer we talk to kids who are out there working 12-hour days, seven days a week," says Lopez. "And we've seen the effects it has. Many farmworker kids are unable to finish high school (they have four times the national dropout rate), let alone go to college -- so they're continuing the cycle of poverty."

Most teen employers (think movie theaters, grocery stores, the Gap) must follow an array of federal and state rules limiting the hours and types of jobs teens can work. But within the notoriously dangerous agriculture industry, scant protections exist for young farmworkers.