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Children in the Fields: Profile of Melissa Bailey

Melissa Bailey
We started building leadership in the community among the child workers themselves, so they could start sharing their experiences to raise awareness.
Children in the Fields: Profile of Melissa Bailey

Around 2009, Melissa Bailey started noticing a large increase in the number of children she encountered working in tobacco, fruit, and vegetable fields across North Carolina, where she was a recruiter for the state’s Migrant Education Program. “We had always seen children on farms, but we had never seen them in great numbers. We began seeing work crews entirely under the age of 18 and as young as ten,” Bailey explained.  “We noticed a serious lack of oversight.”

She discovered that tobacco fields’ contractors were operating without accountability; they were often sub-contracted by a manager, who in turn was working for a grower. “A grower... cannot hope to see every crew coming in there on thousands of acres,” she explained.  

Child workers on these farms are encountering a myriad of potential health and safety hazards, from chemical and nicotine exposure, to lack of access to shade, bathroom facilities, and fresh water, to sexual harassment, said Bailey. Workers, in turn, have trouble reporting labor abuses when unable to pinpoint their location among the thousands of acres of crops.

Bailey’s shock turned to action.  She began working with a few contractors in the field, ensuring water, shade, breaks, safety from harassment, and promised pay. Then, she turned to the community. When approached by the Children in the Fields Campaign, she joined other outreach professionals in organizing child workers and their parents.  “We started building leadership in the community among the child workers themselves, so they could start sharing their experiences to raise awareness,” Bailey said.  The work became the backbone of the grassroots nonprofit, NC FIELD, which she co-founded and eventually led. NC FIELD -- short for North Carolina Focus on Increasing Education Leadership and Dignity -- quickly gained relevance in the community, providing immigrants with education on their rights and tools to better their lives, and a community to celebrate their lives and their goals, while simultaneously calling for an end to the injustices by exposing them to the rest of the nation.

The spike in child labor was a result of a number of factors.  The downturn in the economy left many families hungry. “Food prices had gone up a lot, and migrant farmworkers are not eligible for emergency food assistance in North Carolina,” Bailey explained.  The state’s restrictions on immigrants and driver’s licenses meant many people lost their ability to drive to work. “Once mobility was gone, [workers] had to rely on contractors. We started seeing more widescale issues, with the way they were treated. There was no reason to treat [workers] well anymore,” because their ability to quit and move to a new job was stifled.  A tobacco buyout program starting from 2004 -- in which government funds went to help tobacco farms diversify and move away from tobacco, to assist growers after the government dropped tobacco price supports  --  resulted in farmers buying up more acres to grow more tobacco, said Bailey. Larger farms meant more subcontractors, and less oversight on hiring practices. “The chain of accountability is so convoluted,” Bailey explained, saying that “there continues to be no accountability” for child laborers on farms. She said that she has not seen a reduction in child labor since that initial influx, six years  ago -- just that some of the children got older and reached adulthood.  Many have continued to work the fields.


Bailey grew up in the Appalachian mountains during the coal mine strikes, exposing her to the import of giving workers safe and meaningful work. Although the mountain culture is hardly similar to that of the migrant workers she now serves, she finds striking parallels. Her Appalachian childhood gave her “very good insight not just into poverty but into the culture of poverty.  You’re pretty much ostracized from other regions,” she explained.  Migrant workers in North Carolina “couldn’t communicate well, they didn’t know the rules socially, but they are a very important part of the economy” -- which rung true for her coal mine family as well when they left their communities. Her recognition of these culture dynamics helped her better understand the migrants with whom she would work in the years to come, she said.

As a teen desperate to get out of Appalachia, she raised funds to send herself to Spain for a semester abroad.  Her fluency in Spanish upon her return served her well when she eventually got the job at Migrant Education in 2001.   


She stepped away briefly from Migrant Ed to work at NC FIELD in July, 2012, which gained its nonprofit status in 2011. As the Executive Director, Bailey enjoyed watching the nonprofit take on significance in the community. “The fact that it’s been a stable presence in the community, I really see how necessary that is…, how that’s benefitted the community as a whole.”  Bailey has watched child laborers return to school and attempt to better their lives as a result of the support and community provided by NC FIELD.  She feels the infrastructure in this rural area is what the youth need to “fulfill their own destinies, which in turn is helping the community move forward,” she said. “And I think that can happen on a much larger scale.”


Bailey continues to see the need for support systems to help workers -- children and adults -- better understand how to navigate the world outside of farming.  She says she sees people interested in doing other things, but they don’t know how to approach it.   Workers need to understand “what they need to be successful in the larger society, outside of the bubble of agriculture… If you know you’re meant for greater things, but you have no clue how to do that, it can be frustrating and depressing,” she said.  

She also believes mental and behavioral health needs to accompany basic health care for workers, some of whom have experienced abuse and harassment in the fields.  “What do you do with a child who has been sexually harassed or molested in a field? What do you do with a child whose mother has had to … prostitute, in order to make ends meet?” asked Bailey. “We’re not doing a good job on a national level, so it’s hard to do it at a community level,” she explained, as the lack of infrastructure and funding leaves providers without support to address the issues, and children without sufficient care.

She commends the farmworker health services in eastern North Carolina for meeting the needs of the many marginalized people in her area, including large numbers of child refugees who have recently arrived from the border.  She also recognizes, however, that parents who bring their children to the pediatrician are often not willing to disclose that their children are working in tobacco fields.  Green tobacco sickness, from nicotine exposure, mimics a stomach virus, said Bailey, making proper diagnosis difficult. “One of the challenges moving forward is simply getting the community to speak more freely” about their circumstances, including whether their children are working in the fields.

Another challenge is rural homelessness. When an adolescent refugee mother and her young child were suddenly not welcome in a home with relatives, Bailey was unable to find a local organization to take her in.  The closest shelters in urban settings refused her as well, as she wasn’t within their service area.


In 2014, Bailey stepped back from leadership and project coordination activities at NC FIELD due to health issues. She found herself exhausted. After several months off, she now recognizes the need for health workers and advocates to take care of themselves -- and not just focus on the important goals at hand. “I thought I was taking care of myself, but I wasn’t, really,” she admitted.  She hopes that personal health can be better built into the outreach worker model, which can so often take over an outreach worker’s private life, “because we have our own psychological fallout from things, and there really isn’t anywhere for us to go, or anywhere for us to admit that,” she said.  After she fell ill, she also recognized that similar trainings were lacking in her own work with youth.  “A lot of us spend time training youth as outreach workers and activists and community educators – but we’re not teaching them that [health piece] either, like when it’s okay to say ‘no.’”  Bailey admits she wasn’t able to say ‘no’ herself, as her job is her life’s passion, and her work is heavily needed. She is now NC FIELD’s “volunteer-in-chief,” Bailey says with a laugh. With lessons learned on burnout and health, Bailey is on the rebound: “At this point, I’m getting ready to jump back in again now that I’m feeling better. Its model is so important.”

30 CLINICIANS MAKING A DIFFERENCE is a project celebrating Migrant Clinicians Network's 30th anniversary through the life stories of 30 clinicians making a difference in migrant health. Learn more about Migrant Clinicians Network.


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