By Aviva Shen

"Big Tobacco's Secret Workforce: Child Farm Workers"


CREDIT: Shutterstock

Hundreds of children too young to buy cigarettes are working 60 hours a week on tobacco farms across the South, a new report from Human Rights Watch finds. Due to lax laws governing child labor in agriculture, child workers between the ages of 7 and 17 are regularly exposed to heavy doses of pesticides, nicotine, extreme heat, and operate heavy machinery.

Three-quarters of the 141 children interviewed by HRC said they had suffered symptoms of acute nicotine poisoning. One 16-year-old worker, Carla, recounted how she got sick while working in the tobacco plants: "I didn't feel well, but I still kept working. I started throwing up. I was throwing up for like 10 minutes, just what I ate. I took a break for a few hours, and then I went back to work."

Other children reported how pesticides were sprayed in the fields without any regard to who was working in them. Yanamaria, 14, told HRC that she was in the field during a pesticide spraying, saying, "I can stand the heat for a long time, but when they spray, then I start to feel woozy and tired. Sometimes it looks like everything is spinning."

As HRC notes, child labor laws don't apply to the agricultural sector, which allows children over 11 years old to legally work unlimited hours on farms with parental permission. About 258,800 children under 18 were officially hired to work on farms in 2012, about 20,000 more than in 2009. But children tend to be especially susceptible to pesticides and other medical risks found on farms.

Because so many farm workers are immigrants — 90 percent of workers in North Carolina's tobacco fields are undocumented — the industry can easily exploit their fear of deportation to expose them to dangerous conditions, work them long hours, and pay them far below minimum wage. Tobacco workers of all ages reported to Oxfam America they are given few breaks in the oppressive heat and no protective gear or training to protect themselves. Many undocumented workers are also afraid to seek medical care for themselves or their families.

Pesticide exposure not only causes immediate symptoms like dizziness, skin irritation and vomiting, but can also lead to long-term issues including cancer, hormonal disruption, and nerve damage. The EPA estimates that roughly 20,000 farm workers are poisoned by pesticides every year, but under-reporting means the number is likely higher.

This issue is not confined to the tobacco industry. Farm workers, because they are undocumented or simply too poor to afford child care, tend to bring their children to work alongside them without realizing the risks of the pesticides surrounding them. One Florida farm worker whose daughter contracted leukemia after cutting ferns in Florida explained how they worked under tarps with no ventilation for hours, but had no idea how dangerous this was. Meanwhile, industrial farms are using more pesticides than ever as "superweeds" that have evolved to withstand the chemicals become more common.