Child labor is not considered to exist in the U.S. However, within the tobacco fields of North Carolina, children, primarily Latino children of immigrants or children who are immigrants themselves, are working up to 12 hours a day during the summertime. Many report the side effects of nicotine and pesticide exposure, impacting their health and well-being.
What is Child Labor?
According to UNICEF, 152 million children, around 1/10 children, are considered to be child laborers worldwide. Around half of these children engage in work that is hazardous. The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines child labor as follows:
“Child labour is… work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. It refers to work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and/or interferes with their schooling by depriving them of the opportunity to attend school; obliging them to leave school prematurely; or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.”
The ILO explains that child labor often happens in unhealthy environments, where children are exposed to hazardous substances, extreme temperatures and long work hours. The children take up this kind of work to contribute to the family income.
Few know of this reality occurring in the United States. There is this idea that child labor exists in less developed countries, not in developed, western nations. However, that is not the case. In the U.S, incidences of child labor have been documented in tobacco fields, particularly in the state of North Carolina.
The state has been the subject of news coverage on the topic of tobacco farms and child labor. Many of the children that work in the fields are Latinos and come from families that are either migrants or immigrants. The children’s working conditions have raised concerns.
A report by Human Rights Watch describes the working conditions for the youth during the summer months. Some work for up to 12 hours a day in the heat, and wear up to three shirts to protect themselves from the sun and exposure to pesticides. The children interviewed said they had been working across 12 counties for either farm labor contractors or subcontractors.
With all the present dangers, the children take on the work to help with the family’s finances. A child’s added income assists with the survival of the whole household. Many Latino migrant families work alongside their family members.
Harsh Working Conditions
The working conditions of migrant child laborers have made a series of headlines. NBC News, reports alarming statistics. In some tobacco farms in the U.S, children as young as seven years old labor in the fields.
Helen Smith, the U.S Campaign Coordinator of the 100 Million campaign, a youth-led advocacy campaign that works on empowering youth to speak up for children’s rights all over the world, particularly when it comes to children involved in dangerous forms of labor, met with Latina Republic to offer her expertise on the topic. Smith spoke on the dangers that make tobacco farming a hazardous line of work for children as a result of exposure.
Smith spoke on the health risks of child labor in connection to tobacco,
“No child should have to produce any of our goods, especially agriculture, given just all the risks that you get with pesticides. farming equipment, and sun exposure is a big one. Tobacco has something that all other agricultural labors do not. When tobacco leaves are wet, and people touch those with their unprotected skin, the nicotine is actually absorbed directly into their body.”
As Smith explains, contact with the tobacco leaves can lead to poisoning,
“Two thirds of children on tobacco fields have reported feeling symptoms of nicotine sickness or nicotine poisoning. The lower limit to experience nicotine poisoning is basically the equivalent of smoking more than one pack a day.” Smith emphasizes the contradictions of legalities to access nicotine products. In some states you have to be “ … 21 years old to buy cigarettes at any place that sells cigarettes, but a 12 year old with parental consent, can go to work on a tobacco farm and get nicotine poisoning.”
Common symptoms of nicotine poisoning as mentioned in the report by Human Rights Watch include, headaches, nausea, difficulty breathing, dizziness, lightheadedness, sneezing, salivating, and burning and watering of the eyes, and itching and irritation of the nose and throat.
Smith details the harmful impact of exposure: “ [Nicotine] exposure causes cancer; it can cause reproductive health issues, stunt growth, mood disorders, and permanent brain damage, if you get enough of that in your system over a long enough time.”
In addition to the health risks, many of the children working on tobacco farms report receiving no information on the types of risks and dangers that come from exposure to pesticides nor are they told when pesticides will be applied in their work areas.
Another hazardous aspect of the work is sun exposure:
“[They] have to wear layers of clothing to protect themselves from whatever they’re picking. And then they’re working outside, mostly in southern states, especially during the summer. Sun can do real damage to them. It’s very dangerous to be outside for that long without much clothing on especially if you aren’t given a lot of water breaks. So those two are really the biggest dangers, I think that the kids face.”
The topic of sun exposure has been addressed by other organizations, adds Smith: “[The] AFOG, American Farmer Opportunity Program, for example, has a whole campaign on protection from the environment from the sun.”
The lack of protective gear presents significant hazards to child tobacco laborers: “There’s no law that says that they have to provide all, or even some protective equipment, such as long sleeves to protect them from the sun,” expands Smith.
A number of children, have reported that they were not provided with water-resistant gear, which is recommended by the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The children commented that all they received were gloves or garbage bags.
Even when working with protective gear, Human Rights Watch, reports that protective clothing can only offer partial safety. Commonly used safety equipment, such as watertight gloves and rain suits, do not eliminate the susceptibility to any absorption and exposure to pesticides and nicotine.
Other concerns, such as access to water stations for drinking and hygienic purposes, or bathroom breaks, have also been noted. Smith adds,
“I think that the other [misconception] is that the fields or whoever actually owns the property, are providing water, bathrooms, and protective equipment. That doesn’t happen. A lot of these children are not getting a bathroom break. They might not be drinking enough water.” These are grave issues, considering that these children are often working long hours and in the summer heat. “It’s not that they’re choosing to work on these fields, and they’re perfectly safe. It’s that they have to, to make money to help support their families most of the time,” explains Smith.
The discussions around children working in tobacco fields have raised different opinions and efforts on the topic. While various children have reported that tobacco field work has made them ill, a number of them have also expressed the need to continue working.
The Washington Post interviewed Melissa Bailey, the co-founder of NC FIELD, a farmworker advocacy group, and she mentioned that this is a major issue. Previous attempts to pass legislation to prevent children from working on tobacco farms have been met with significant pushback. Alfonzo Lopez, a Democratic delegate from Virginia, tried to introduce a bill that would keep children from working on tobacco farms, which was later on blocked in 2015 and 2017.
Action to make change
Various tobacco farms take advantage of the legal status of minors, as children have few avenues for work without U.S citizenship or green cards. Smith shares that some states have been making their own laws when it comes to employment and child labor:
“There are 17 states in the US that either exempt or don’t mention agricultural employment for minors.” She continues, “It’s about marginalized populations. They are not being considered or they are being taken advantage of. So that’s why agriculture and specifically tobacco is such a large problem, because it is basically being avoided by state governments.”
There are some serious labor protections’ discrepancies in this field “… it is hard to find child labor issues domestically in the U.S because most children are actually protected by most of our federal labor laws. [If you] read the Fair Labor Standards act you find that child labor and agriculture isn’t protected the way that every single other form of child labor is protected against, for the most part, in the US,” explains Smith.
Another loophole regarding child labor on tobacco farms has been centered around age. Smith emphasizes,
“No one under the age of 16, can actually work in the fields. Unless, (and here’s kind of a special line item), you are a small family farm, as they don’t have to abide by that rule. That’s one loophole that we’ve seen just in all agricultural fields, but also in tobacco as well. But just in general, even though these laws do exist that doesn’t mean necessarily that they’re followed. This kind of supply chain between producers and manufacturers, is not tracked to the extent that it should be.
[It’s] impossible to track every single farm that’s producing tobacco in the US and make sure that people who work there, are actually meeting our labor laws, especially given that a lot of children will go to work in tobacco farms just following their family. Their mother, father, aunt, uncle work on one of these farms, and they’ll just bring them along to try and make a little extra money.”
The 100 Million campaign has been raising awareness on this matter in particular. The campaign incorporates the influence of social media to bring people together to engage on this topic. On their website you will find social media Action Packs, activism resources, and key facts about child labor in the US tobacco industry, and as well as some options to get involved.
Other ways that people can get involved is by filling out a pre-written letter that can be downloaded that includes information on child labor and tobacco; federal laws, and a space where people can fill in their decision makers, members of Congress or senators and send that off to whoever they want to send it to, in order to encourage them to ensure that children on tobacco fields are considered and protected.
The 100 Million campaign includes, options to contact the organization and get involved, whether that be through research, through advocacy, through social media. They have several social media tool kits that they have sent out.
Through their toolkit, one of the more accessible forms of advocacy has been through their ready to go messages, which Smith states are, “Many pre-written tweets, pre-designed graphics for people to put out on Twitter, on Facebook, on Instagram, whatever they want to use, to get the message out there.”
The goal of the 100 Million Campaign is, “…to make sure that every child that is feeling like they are being forced to work through just their situation or their environment, they’re either protected in what they have to do, or measures are put in place to make sure that they never have to. If every government around the world did dedicate to children their fair share of policies, of resources, [child labor] wouldn’t be a problem, no child would have to work.”
Smith shares that the movement’s political aims are centered on ensuring children are in safe environments. She adds, “It’s not always just a question of outlawing child labor and tobacco. But it’s making sure that members of Congress, hear what we are saying, that children need to be safe, they need to be protected, and that means we need to provide for them.”
Smith explains, “Tobacco work is hazardous, dangerous work that can lead to cancer, reproductive health issues, neurological damage, stunted growth, and children should never have to work in those situations.”
Continuous political action is needed to end child labor in tobacco farms. An Act titled “S. 1823 (116th): Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act” was introduced in 2019 to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that if passed, would prohibit minors from working in this sector, covering “any employee under the age of eighteen years has direct contact with tobacco plants or dried tobacco leaves.” It would also label the tobacco agriculture sector as an oppressive form of child labor.
“…No one under the age of 18, can actually work in anything that’s deemed hazardous by the US government, we’ve actually looked at trying to get tobacco work, specifically declaring it as hazardous work. When President Obama was in his second term, he said that he would actually declare tobacco work as hazardous, but never did,” adds Smith.
“This is… something that we’re hoping that potentially we can push the current administration, President Joe Biden to do via executive order.”
The issue of child labor on U.S tobacco farms highlights the gaps that exist across regulations concerning labor, worker safety, and child hazardous work. Smith reiterates the point,
“I think one of the biggest issues with this topic is that people have no idea that this is a problem, because you wouldn’t. People do generally think that child labor exists somewhere else, that it is not really here in the US, when that’s not the case. There are many loopholes that are designed to take advantage of marginalized and even migrant children.”
Although there is much left to do to ensure that children aren’t working in an environment that is detrimental to their health, there are ways to get involved in raising awareness. This has been essential to the work carried out by various organizations and activists.
One part of doing so involves “[Having] other young people stand up for young people on farms who may not have that access, who may not have the power behind their voice at this time.”
Nohely Diaz is a graduate from California State University, Sacramento. During her education there, she majored in Government with a concentration in International Relations and doubled minored in Criminal Justice and Peace and Conflict Resolution. She is committed to bringing awareness to topics relating to human security and human rights. Her dedication to public service has allowed her to engage in several advocacy campaigns regarding human trafficking, labor exploitation, and Indigenous rights. In addition, she has served her community through census work. Nohely is now looking to continue pursuing justice and equity for others by starting Graduate school.