12-year-olds can't buy cigarettes — but they can work in tobacco fields
José Velásquez Castellano started working in agriculture when he was 13 years old. Ten-hour days, five or six days a week, in North Carolina's summer heat. It was sometimes blueberries, sometimes cucumbers — but mostly, it was tobacco.
"Its prime hits right at the peak of summer," Castellano told NPR, and the tobacco created a greenhouse effect. It would be 90 degrees outside, "but inside those fields, it feels like well over 100 degrees."
He'd go home dehydrated and exhausted and then wake up at 4 a.m. the next day and do it again.
For children 12 and older in the United States, difficult, low-paying and dangerous work in tobacco fields for unlimited hours is legal, as long as it's outside school hours. Child labor laws are more lenient in agriculture than in other industries, and efforts to change that have repeatedly failed, leaving growers and companies to decide whether to set the bar higher than what's legally required of them. In the meantime, kids work, often trying to help their families make ends meet.
Today, Castellano is a sophomore at Tufts University. But when he worked, he felt "this sense that working in those fields was going to be the rest of my life, that I had nothing else going for me."
His mother immigrated to the U.S. with Castellano when she was herself a teenager. Agriculture was one of the few jobs accessible to her, Castellano says. In the summer, it was Castellano's job too.
He sometimes had trouble getting the money he was owed for his labor. At the start of his days, he says, he'd write his name and the hours he'd worked in a notebook and "hope that notebook wouldn't get lost" — which would mean he wouldn't get paid.
He worked alongside other kids with one of North Carolina's most valuable crops. Some of them worked in the summer and went to school the rest of the year, like him. Some didn't go to school at all.
All the while, nicotine — a substance he's barely old enough to legally purchase now — seeped into his skin. For all tobacco workers, but especially kids, that can cause nicotine poisoning, or green tobacco sickness, whose symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness.
Seventh-graders can't buy cigarettes, and they can't work at grocery stores or fast-food chains. But they can work in tobacco.
Why is this allowed?
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, kids 12 and up can work unlimited hours outside school hours in agriculture, and the rules are even more lenient for kids who work on their families' farms. Outside that industry, workers have to be 16 to work unlimited hours. Sixteen-year-olds and 17-year-olds working in agriculture can do tasks listed by the Labor Department as hazardous, versus 18 in other industries. Agriculture's hazardous occupation orders haven't been updated in 50 years, and they don't include tobacco, despite the known risks for workers of all ages.
"If a labor inspector goes to a tobacco farm and finds a 12-year-old kid working, there's no labor violation to report," Margaret Wurth, a senior children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, told NPR. She has co-authored reports on child labor in tobacco farming that included interviews with more than 100 child tobacco workers.
Advocates have asked the Labor Department to update agriculture's hazardous occupation orders, which Wurth says need to reflect "what's causing kids to get sick, be injured or die on farms in 2023, as opposed to 1970." More broadly, advocates want Congress to give kids in agriculture the same age limits and protections they have in other industries.
But efforts to tighten agricultural child labor laws have repeatedly failed because of opposition from Republicans in Congress and farm lobbying groups. They argue that such changes would hurt family farms and make it harder to teach kids about farming.
An Obama-era rule change proposed by the Labor Department would have updated the hazardous occupation orders to include work with tobacco, among other protections. It withdrew the proposed changes in 2012 after intense pushback from critics, including nearly 200 lawmakers in both chambers of Congress, during a public comment period.
Agencies within the department such as the Wage and Hour Division, which enforces child labor laws, declined to be interviewed for this story. In a statement, the department said it has "long been concerned" with child labor in the U.S., including in tobacco, and is focused on combating illegal child labor. The department pointed out that large tobacco companies publicly pledged to end child labor in their supply chains in 2014.
Because of the uptick in labor violations in recent years, the department launched a child labor task force and "called on Congress to give the department better tools to hold companies accountable for putting children in danger," according to the department's statement.
What about the companies?
Some major tobacco companies and growers announced policies in 2014 prohibiting their contract growers from hiring kids under age 16 and prohibiting workers under 18 from doing hazardous work — standards that exceed federal child labor laws.
Workers on commercial tobacco farms are often brought in by contractors, meaning the growers might not interact with kids hired to work on their farms, according to Wurth and Castellano.
Wurth says Human Rights Watch was concerned that growers may be telling the companies they sell tobacco to that "'we don't have any kids in our fields,' but they might not even actually know."
"We don't have reason to think a whole lot has changed," Wurth says, but because there are no reliable counts of kids working in the fields and because companies are responsible for policing themselves, "we don't know, concretely."
Reynolds and Altria, two of the largest tobacco companies in the U.S., were among the companies that voluntarily adopted child labor policies exceeding federal law. To monitor compliance, both companies told NPR in statements, they require contracted growers to be certified and audited by the industry group GAP Connections.
That certification process prohibits growers from hiring children under 16 unless they're excused from attending school or involved in accredited learning programs, and it prohibits minors from doing tasks defined by the Labor Department as hazardous.
Reynolds told NPR in a statement that if GAP Connections found a minor under 16 working on a contracted farm, the worker would immediately be removed from the farm and "the contract could be terminated immediately, not renewed, or the grower could receive a probationary contract which would result in immediate termination if found not in 100% compliance with any GAP Connections Certification standard or Reynolds contract requirement."
Altria said in a statement to NPR that all its contracts "meet and often exceed the law" with regard to child labor and that 97.6% of its contracted growers achieved certification. When asked what the consequences would be for growers if children under 16 were found working, Altria directed NPR to the GAP Connections compliance guide and said that "we evaluate why the grower was not certified and take appropriate actions, up to and including terminating our contract with the grower."
Researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that children under 16 were still working in tobacco more than a year after major industry players announced they would prohibit hiring workers younger than that age.
Castellano says that on days his supervisors knew the farm's owners were coming, they "would tell me to hide my face, to not be noticeable, because they knew it was wrong."
Why do kids work?
Factors that push kids into working — from the rise in unaccompanied migrant kids to the economic hardships imposed by inflation and the COVID-19 pandemic — are in full force in the U.S. economy today, Wurth says.
"Wherever families are struggling to make ends meet, kids are going to find themselves in the workplace," legally or not, Wurth says.
That was Castellano's situation.
"I really worked mainly because money was tight," he says. "I needed to help my mother pay the bills," and his goal was to make sure that his younger siblings wouldn't have to do the same. It also "felt nice sometimes to be able to buy my own things."
Yesenia Cuello is a former child farmworker who, like Castellano, worked in tobacco fields in the summers to help her mother make ends meet from the time she was 14. Her sisters did too — the youngest was 12 when she started.
Now, Cuello is the executive director of NC Field, a grassroots nonprofit organization that works to serve marginalized populations in rural eastern North Carolina.
The number of children working in the fields has probably increased since the start of the pandemic, Cuello told NPR. Part of the reason is that kids weren't going to school, but another factor was that people without legal immigration status couldn't access many of the pandemic relief resources available to U.S. citizens.
"The reality is that if you're not working, you're not making money," Cuello says. "And if you're not making money, are you eating?"
Because many families rely on extra income from kids to pay bills and put food on the table, meaningfully addressing this problem isn't as simple as pulling kids out of the field, Cuello points out.
She says fixing the nation's immigration system, paying farmworkers better wages and providing summer programs for young people will keep parents from even having to consider bringing their children to work.
"People should understand that the food they're eating on a daily basis is harvested by oppressed people," Cuello says. The food and other agricultural products that everyone consumes are "touched by millions of people who sometimes have no choice but to send their children to work."
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