The US children working in tobacco fields: 'I wanted to help my mama'

Lax laws and the farm economy structure allows teens to work the fields, and laborers say they see ‘no alternative’

Luis is just 14 years old, but he already has an exhausting, dawn-till-dusk job. Last summer, he started working in tobacco fields in North Carolina.

Even though Luis is just a child – too young to buy cigarettes – it is legal for him to work here in the US.

The job pays about $7.25 per hour.


Monday through Saturday last summer, when he was not in school, he rose at 5am, dressed in long sleeves, jeans, boots, gloves, a hat and a plastic poncho, and waited for a van to drive him to fields as far as an hour away. He came home around 7pm. This is a typical schedule for laborers in this tough and dangerous job.

Workers in tobacco are vulnerable to heat sickness, in temperatures which regularly reach 32C (89F); they risk injuries from sharp objects; and, if the Trump administration has its way, children will return to using the most toxic agrochemicals.

Then there is the plant itself. Tobacco naturally contains water-soluble nicotine. This makes morning dew or overnight rain a vehicle for huge doses of nicotine. Workers are regularly exposed to six cigarettes’ worth of nicotine per day, one study found. This can result in acute nicotine poisoning, called green tobacco sickness, characterized by nausea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness.

Farming tobacco to produce the leaf that fills cigarettes can involve:

  • Gruelling physical labour using heavy hoes, and sharp tools, on rows of plants
  • Nicotine poisoning or green tobacco sickness through handling the leaves, causing nausea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness
  • Exposure to toxic pesticides and fertilisers, sometimes without proper protection
  • Exposure to the sun and high heat for long hours
  • For some workers and families, a lack of access to good sanitation or places to live and sleep away from the tobacco fields

Tobacco firms say they ban under 18s from hazardous work.

“I wanted to help my mama,” said Luis. He wanted to work, he said, “to get school supplies, so she doesn’t have to waste money”. Luis is the son of a cervical cancer survivor. He started to work when his mother, a waitress, was too ill to hold a job. (The Guardian has changed the names of workers and their families in this report.)

“It’s heavy work, very hard,” said Luis’s mother. But, she said, “there’s no choice”. Children need to help buy “clothes, shoes, their own things, things they need”. She said it would be “better when they were older, but he started because I had cancer ... He was helping me as well as my older son.”

Activists shout during a Farm Labor Organizing Committee protest over pay and conditions in Durham, North Carolina.
Activists shout during a Farm Labor Organizing Committee protest over pay and conditions in Durham, North Carolina. Photograph: Justin Cook/The Guardian

In the US, lax laws and an informal economy in which landowners are removed from hiring laborers allow teens to work growing and harvesting tobacco. This contravenes some tobacco companies’ own policies, which often prohibit children from performing hazardous work.

“There’s a lot of 14-, 15-year-olds working in the fields,” said Antonio, a 19-year-old who has done so since he was 15, a history confirmed by his mother. “They need money or they want to work,” Antonio said.

Altria, parent company of Philip Morris USA, which produces Marlboro cigarettes, said growers were “prohibited from hiring those less than 16 years of age, and may only assign hazardous duties to workers 18 and older. Both are above the legal requirements. We require parental consent for those under 18 working in tobacco farming.”

The company also said it reviewed all growers every three years. In 2017, it found only one case of child labor, in which a farmer hired two 15-year-olds.

“While the individuals were no longer employed by the grower, the contract requirements were reviewed with the grower to strengthen their understanding of the minimum age requirement,” the company said. The company also said it had hired third-party assessors to monitor labor conditions.

Miguel Coleta, director of sustainability for Philip Morris International, said the company had been “making progress in tackling complex labor issues on farms supplying to PMI and our standards exceed US in many areas”.

“Challenges remain, and PMI continues to work with Verité and the Farm Labor Practices Group on systemic issues associated with child labor, grievance mechanisms to protect workers’ rights and to achieve meaningful improvements on the ground,” said Coleta.

In 2015, PMI adopted a new leaf-buying model in the US, and it now buys through the third-party leaf buyers Alliance One International Inc and Universal Leaf North America. At the time, Human Rights Watch said the move would improve labor conditions on US farms.

The Guardian interviewed several teens, parents, and labor organizers for this story. They described a picture in which child labor was commonplace. However, many said they depended on their children’s income to make ends meet. Many of those interviewed also work in other crops, including picking cucumbers, peppers or other vegetables.

Green tobacco sickness is a form of nicotine poisoning that workers can be vulnerable to absorbing through their skin, especially if the leaves are wet because of rain, dew or sweat.

What are the symptoms?

Nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, headaches, and dizziness while farmers are working or several hours after work ends. Symptoms can last 24 hours; extreme cases may require emergency help. Tobacco firms say they ban under 18s from hazardous work and only allow them to handle dry tobacco when there is no risk to health.

How prevalent is it?

One US study found about one in four workers harvesting tobacco in North Carolina suffered from green tobacco sickness in a single season.

“It’s the fact that we have to do it, because there is no alternative,” said Laticia Savala, a labor organizer with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (Floc) in North Carolina. Floc does not support outlawing child labor in fields, because organizers feel it would harm families who depend on children’s income. However, needing the money does not lessen the harm.

“What mom wouldn’t want their kids studying [rather] than working in the fields?” asked Savala. “You’re forced into doing something.” If labor conditions on farms “were better, probably child labor wouldn’t exist”.

The world’s largest tobacco-producing countries span the globe. They include Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Malawi, Pakistan and the United States.

Together, North Carolina and Kentucky produce 70% of the 700m pounds of tobacco grown in the US each year. Only 0.04% of US farmland grows tobacco, but the United States is still an international juggernaut, the fourth-largest producer in the world.

North Carolina is just one part of a global supply chain that feeds cigarette makers with tobacco leaf. However, the value of tobacco farming is dwarfed by the value of the global tobacco products. Tobacco farming was worth $19.1bn in 2013. Once leaf is manufactured, marketed and branded, tobacco products were worth $783bn the same year.

North Carolina’s farmers employ mostly Latin American workers, who toil in fields owned by white, ageing farmers. The US does not grant agricultural workers collective bargaining rights and workers are sometimes undocumented. Workers are vulnerable to wage theft, exploitation and dangerous working conditions.

Because children work in an informal economy, there is no data on how many might work in fields in summer months, or even when they should be in school. A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) was the first in recent memory to ignite debate about child labor in tobacco in the US. The advocacy group followed up the report in 2015, and found little had fundamentally changed in fields.

youth farm worker from north carolina
Workers in tobacco are vulnerable to heat sickness and face other health risks. Photograph: Justin Cook/The Guardian

“If you appear younger than 16, they’ll ask,” said 19-year-old John about children working on the fields. “But otherwise, no,” they don’t ask. Many contractors, one mother said, encouraged children to lie about their age.

Attempts have been made to regulate tobacco growing in the past. In 2012, the Obama administration attempted to make it illegal for children younger than 16 to work in tobacco. But the Department of Labor backed down after Republicans falsely argued the measure would prevent children from working on family farms.

At the state level, as recently as 2017, the Democratic Virginia delegate Alfonso Lopez tried to introduce a bill to bar child labor on tobacco farms. He was blocked by Republicans.

“If this was your kid, would you be OK with having them work in this job?” Lopez asked at the time as the bill was shelved. “Would you? I don’t think you would. So why is it OK for kids you don’t know to do this job?”

When criticism of child labor on US farms reached its peak in 2014, Philip Morris International hired a company to audit its supply chain. It found children working in hazardous conditions on 16% of the US farms it visited.

However, auditors concluded: “The root cause of many labor related issues in the US is the lack of sustainable, reliable workforce exacerbated by poor US immigration policies.”

The US has signed an international human rights convention meant to protect children “from economic exploitation” and work likely “to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development”. To that end, it encourages trading partners to meet these standards, and publishes an annual report on the “worst forms of child labor” around the world.

One country singled out in the report was Malawi, visited by the Guardian earlier this year as part of an investigation, where children “continue to engage in the worst forms of child labor, including in the harvesting of tobacco”, the most recent report by the US Bureau of International Labor Affairs said.

The tobacco industry, through its Eliminating Child Labor in Tobacco Growing Foundation, agrees “in principle” children should be prohibited from hazardous work, “particularly the use of of machinery and agrochemicals by children in tobacco farming”.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, is hoping to further deregulate farm labor. Rules put into place after the 2014 HRW report are being rolled back by the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is examining whether children should again be allowed to work with dangerous pesticides on farms.

“I’ve worked in the field as well; it’s very difficult. For a young person it’s worse,” said Antonio’s mother, a 37-year-old with three sons who works behind the counter of a rural convenience store. Teens often prefer farm work to other work, she said, “because they’re given jobs despite their age”.

Dominance of American tobacco has waned in recent decades, as the tobacco supply chain has globalized. This and the deregulation of US tobacco price controls has encouraged consolidation. Where in 1978 there were 188,000 tobacco farms, today there are around 4,200.

“A lot of times they’re underage and they lie and say they’re 16 or 17, but they’re actually 13 or 14 years [old],” Antonio’s mother said. “It’s hard, but there aren’t any more options.” She said claims that child labor was not happening on tobacco farms were “a lie”.

  • The names of workers and their families have been changed


Jessica Glenza in North Carolina

The GuardianTramp

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