TikTok Teens Are Exposing Brutal Conditions For Migrant Farmworkers

Teens are using social media to advocate for those working California's fields amidst scorching temperatures, wildfires, and a pandemic with no end in sight.
August 31, 2020, 1:00pm
TikTok Teens Are Exposing Brutal Conditions For Migrant Farmworkers
Video still from @Rolis707 | Twitter

In the span of just two weeks, nearly 1.5 million acres of California have burned. The ongoing blazes represent yet another devastating blow to the thousands of farm workers who live and work throughut the state—a largely immigrant and undocumented workforce, many of whom are are children, teens and young adults. 

As the scorching heat soars into the triple digits, wildfires decimate the state and the coronavirus pandemic shows no end in sight, these agricultural workers continue to toil in the fields, harvesting the food which keeps the United States and many other countries fed, all in the face of mounting disasters. And like so much else amidst these accumulating catastrophes, farmworkers are capturing and sharing the brutal conditions of their work on social media platforms.

Across TikTok, users have shared videos of children picking strawberries who are as young as eight years old, four years younger than the federally regulated age limit of 12 for farm work on non-family-owned farms. Other videos show teens tilling soil, including a 16-year-old boy with the hopes of being an educator, or footage from the United Farm Workers’ TikTok account, documenting the frenetic speed with which workers pick bundles of vegetables for less than $2 per crate of 60 bundles. 

For many adolescents and young adults who make up California’s agricultural worker communities, the coronavirus pandemic has also meant a school year re-centered around remote learning, with an uncertain future for their education. As fall approaches and school openings remain an open question across California, many more youths are looking to field work to help combat looming financial precarity for their families.

A key difference in the nature of farm work in California compared to much of the Midwest is due to the crops grown in the state. The labor-intensive produce requires people to pick the fruits and vegetables by hand, as opposed to cornfields which are mostly automated. As Elizabeth Aguilera writes for Cal Matters, “when the health crisis interrupted education across the state, closing schools in March and moving learning online, many of these students went to work in the vast green fields that feed much of the country.” 

“Whether it’s wildfire, pandemic, drought or storm, farmworkers are out in the field,” Lucas Zucker, the policy and communications director for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy told The Guardian recently. “Many are from Indigenous communities from southern Mexico who face even greater barriers to accessing services and reporting labor abuses.”

According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report, nearly half a million young people under 18, some as young as 12, worked in agriculture across the country in 2016, with California being home to the largest number of minors working in fields. Many of these young people, some whose parents work in California’s fields, or have worked as migrant farm workers themselves, have turned to social media platforms to shed light on the experiences and exploitative labor practices that they and members of their communities endure. 

Flor Martinez of San Jose, who worked in grape fields and is now a business owner, activist and DACA recipient has used her 100,000 follower strong Instagram platform to shed light on farmworker conditions. Originally, Martinez hoped to shed light on migrant farmworkers dealing with the recent heat wave across California. "I was bringing awareness to the heat, you know. Like, wow it's over 100 degrees out there and our essential workers aren't even being recognized the way they should be as essential workers," Martinez said to ABC Eyewitness News about her efforts. 

Since posting a series of moving images and videos to her Instagram page, she has gone on to detail her own experiences picking grapes, as well as navigating school without access to Wi-Fi at home. “I graduated middle and high school by being able to use the Starbucks WiFi till 9pm then relocating to a nearby McDonalds,” Martinez wrote in a recent Instagram post. “But nowadays WIFI is essential for education, due to COVID-19 restrictions and regulations of coarse [sic].” A recent photo shared on her page shows what appears to be two elementary school-aged girls perched in a Taco Bell parking lot, attempting to access their school materials via the free wifi. 

Beyond this, through a GoFundMe fundraiser she regularly promotes on Instagram, Martinez has managed to raise over $185,000 towards the purchase of masks to protect workers not only from coronavirus but from the air rendered toxic by wildfires. Still, many of the farm workers are parents, who have asked that some of the funds be allocated towards purchasing school supplies for their children as the new school year begins. Even more videos shared by Martinez show dozens of families lining up to receive their backpacks full of school supplies. 

Unidos831, an Instagram account created within the past month for the UNIDOS group joined Martinez’s school supply distribution efforts in Monterey County this week. Videos show donations of food, day-to-day school supplies and pre-packed backpacks, with volunteers helping to distribute the vital goods to farm workers.

“This is the reality of the thousands and thousands of individuals, many who are immigrants, who feed us, provide us with every fruit and vegetable on our table," UNIDOS members wrote, in a joint statement emailed to Motherboard. "We need to fight for them and do all we can in our power to make sure farm workers are not neglected but instead are seen as what they are, human beings deserving of respect and humane working conditions.” 

Their hope in sharing this content across social media is to spread awareness of the injustices farmworkers experience and ultimately inspire others to take action, get involved, and demand better policies to protect all farmworkers. The videos they share allow them to shed light on what many agricultural companies regularly hide—the real physical and mental toll it takes to maintain the nation fed. 

“It is important to remember that a picture only captures that moment, however, the struggle farmworkers experience stays with them for a lifetime,” the UNIDOS members added.

In July, Gianna Nino, an Indigenous migrant farm worker who will attend Stanford as a medical student in the fall, tweeted a photo of a basket of blueberries, captioning it simply, “I’m about to finish up my time in the fields, and wanted everyone to know that we (farmworkers) are paid $7 for two gallons of blueberries. How much do you pay for your blueberries?” The post went viral, gaining over 235,000 likes in a matter of days. In a comment to ABC News Nino said, “It's so easy to serve your fruit not knowing where those blueberries come from. There's a workforce with people with dreams and hope behind every food you eat.” 

Julian Araujo, a 19-year-old rising star on the LA Galaxy soccer team,, re-posted a video featuring a row of grape harvesters in Sonoma’s wine country, gathering fruit as a massive plume of black smoke rises nearby. 

“I want to use my platform to bring attention to the grueling conditions and low pay that our field workers are experiencing every day," he added as a caption. "If anyone has any further information on ways that I can help, please reach out. These men & women deserve better!!!” he added as a caption. Growing up in the Lompoc Valley just north of Santa Barbara, his parents were once among the farm workers now facing harrowing circumstances, coming from Mexico as young adults to work in the fields.  

“This one has hit me a lot more just because of all the fires and everything that’s going on. The heat. I’m at practice and I’m dying. I can only imagine them. They’re working countless hours,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “They deserve better,” Araujo said. “And I want to do everything in my power to help them. And I’m going to continue to help them. I had to tweet what was on my mind.”