Every summer for the past four years, Saray Cambray Alvarez has woken up at dawn to work in tobacco fields. Before entering the long rows of tobacco plants in Wilson, North Carolina, Saray, now 14, pulls a black plastic garbage bag over her body to protect her skin from leaves dripping with nicotine dew. If they touch her skin, she gets dizzy and sometimes throws up. In the 90-plus degree heat and humidity, she has trouble breathing and may wait an hour for a sip of water.
"You get very thirsty," says Saray, who works 12-hour shifts. "It's too hard for me, and it's too hot."
Even though we think of child labor as a thing of the past, many teenagers like Saray--and children younger than her--spend their summers laboring in tobacco fields, mostly in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, which together produce 90 percent of U.S. tobacco. Many are American citizens whose Hispanic immigrant parents may or may not be in the U.S. legally. These teens usually have to work to help their struggling families get by.
In the fields, they face harsh working conditions: They inhale pesticides, deal with the effects of nicotine poisoning, and work in extreme heat. Studies have shown that workers on tobacco farms have about the same level of nicotine in their bodies as regular smokers. Health experts believe that the long-term effects of nicotine poisoning and exposure to pesticides in children may include damage to their developing brains, respiratory problems, and cancer.
"It's almost as if these kids have a regular smoking habit," says Margaret Wurth, an expert on children's health at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group that tracks human rights around the world. "They're absorbing so much nicotine in the fields."
Child Labor in the U.S.
Child labor still exists in many places (see "Child Labor Around the World, " p. 10), and in the U.S. it was rampant until the early 1900s, when almost 2 million children under 15 worked in American coal mines, in garment factories, and on farms. Poor families, especially immigrants, often depended on their children's incomes to survive.
Several states passed laws regulating child labor in the 1800s. (Massachusetts was the first, in 1836.) But these laws were relatively weak and often weren't enforced. The situation changed in 1938, when passage of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act set rules for the age at which children could be employed, what kinds of jobs they could do, and for how many hours. Because family farming was widespread back then-and parents needed their children to work alongside them--agricultural work was treated differently. And today, that disparity remains in effect.
For non-farm work, federal law sets 14 as the minimum age and restricts work for children under 16 to eight hours a day. For jobs the Labor Department considers "hazardous"--like mining, excavation, and explosives manufacturing--the minimum age is 18. But children as young as 12 are allowed to work on farms for unlimited hours, as long as they don't miss school. (For kids working on their families' farms, where presumably their parents are looking out for their wellbeing, there's no minimum age.)
More than 500,000 minors work on farms in the U.S., according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Those who don't work in the tobacco fields may pick tomatoes in California, cucumbers in Michigan, and oranges in Florida; they follow seasonal work from state to state and are often paid less than the federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour. Though farmwork can provide income for their families, it's one of the most dangerous kinds of work young people can do.
Federal data shows that in 2012, three fourths of the children under 18 who died from work-related injuries--22 in total--were agricultural workers. And about 2,000 minors working on U.S. farms suffered non-fatal injuries, often involving the use of sharp blades or heavy machinery like tractors. Children working on tobacco farms, who usually earn at least $7.25 an hour, face the added threat of nicotine poisoning.
Tobacco companies say they're following the law and have even instituted additional protections. Some, like Reynolds American, whose cigarette brands include Camel, and Altria Group, which sells Marlboro, recently adopted policies banning their tobacco growers from hiring children under 16. But these policies are hard to enforce, and labor experts say that federal law needs to be strengthened to better protect minors.
"Our labor laws date back to a different era in agriculture, which was dominated by family farms," says Wurth of Human Rights Watch. But today, farming is different, she says. "These kids are hired workers. They're working 60 hours a week on large commercial tobacco farms."
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