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Big Tobacco’s Child Workers: Young Laborers Endure Health Risks, Harsh Conditions on U.S. Farms

StorySeptember 08, 2014
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Even as tobacco companies are legally barred from selling cigarettes to children, they are reportedly profiting from child labor. Investigations by The New York Times and Human Rights Watch reveal hundreds, if not thousands, of children are working on tobacco farms in the United States. Many suffer from “green tobacco sickness,” or nicotine poisoning, which can cause vomiting, dizziness and irregular heart rates, among other symptoms. Children are especially vulnerable to toxic pesticides since their bodies are still developing. Workers can absorb as much nicotine as if they were actually smoking simply by handling wet tobacco leaves. We speak with Steven Greenhouse, longtime labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times, who went to North Carolina to meet the young laborers. “I was shocked that a lot of these kids said, 'I work in the fields from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.,'” Greenhouse says of the 60-hour weekly schedules the young workers commonly endure, often in grueling heat. Under U.S. law, tobacco farms can hire workers as young as 12 years old for unlimited hours, as long as it doesn’t conflict with their school attendance.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Tobacco companies cannot legally sell cigarettes to children, but they’re reportedly profiting from child labor. That’s the conclusion of a recent investigation by The New York Times that uncovers the dangers faced by thousands of children working on tobacco farms in the United States. Headlined “Just 13, and Working Risky 12-Hour Shifts in the Tobacco Fields,” the piece reveals child laborers frequently catch what is known as “green tobacco sickness,” or nicotine poisoning, which can cause vomiting, dizziness, irregular heart rates, among other symptoms. Children are especially vulnerable to toxic pesticides since their bodies are still developing. The risks include nervous system damage, reproductive impacts and cancer. Many of the kids are immigrants, or children of immigrants, and routinely work 60-hour work weeks, without overtime pay. Tobacco workers can absorb as much nicotine as if they were actually smoking simply by handling wet tobacco leaves.

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch spoke to several child tobacco workers who described what it’s like to work on tobacco farms.

CHILD TOBACCO WORKER 1: Your neck starts hurting, your shoulders are hurting, and it’s just like your body wants to give up.

CHILD TOBACCO WORKER 2: It feels like you can’t feel your legs, and you’ve got to take breaks.

HECTOR: I use the bathroom before I leave, and I just wait ’til I get back here. We start working at 6:00, and we get out at 6:00. And I just wait ’til I get home.

CHILD TOBACCO WORKER 3: It feels horrible, because you feel like there’s no air. And then you look down, you look beside, and then you’re only halfway done. And you feel like it’s time for us to get out, because you feel like you’re going to die in there.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from a video by Human Rights Watch, which accompanied its recent report, “US: Child Workers in Danger on Tobacco Farms.” Under U.S. law, tobacco farms can hire workers at much younger ages, for longer hours and under more hazardous conditions than in almost any other sector. Federal law allows children as young as 12 years old to work on farms for unlimited hours, as long as it doesn’t conflict with their school attendance. Tobacco growers say the practice of using young teenagers is rare, but The New York Times found the practice is still prevalent.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Steven Greenhouse, the longtime labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times, author of the exposé, “Just 13, and Working Risky 12-Hour Shifts in the Tobacco Fields.”

Steven Greenhouse, welcome back to Democracy Now!

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Nice to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain more what you found.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, I went to North Carolina, and I went to the eastern part of the state and visited many tobacco farms and met many young kids who were working in tobacco—you know, 13-year-old Saray Cambray Alvarez, 16-year-old Ana Flores, 15-year-old Edinson [Bueso]. And, you know, it is fairly prevalent. And I was shocked that a lot of these kids said, “I work in the fields from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.” Ana Flores told me she wakes up at 5:00 in the morning, leaves for the fields at 6:00, gets to the fields at 7:00, works until 7:00 p.m., sometimes 8:00 p.m., sometimes 8:30. And a lot of these kids told me they get really sick some of the time. The nicotine—when there’s a lot of dew, when it rains, the nicotine in the plants will kind of dissolve into the water, and when it gets on people’s skin, that’s when they get this nicotine poisoning, green tobacco sickness. And they throw up. They get nauseous. They get dizzy. This one 15-year-old girl, Esmeralda Juarez, told me that at one point she was feeling so sick she asked her supervisor, “I really need just to sit for five or 10 minutes. I’m feeling nauseous.” And she told me that unless she kept on working, he was going to fire her. So it’s a very difficult, shall I say, road to hoe. You know, it’s very difficult for these kids. It’s very difficult for many workers. Now, a lot of—

AMY GOODMAN: Even getting access to water.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, a lot of the workers say the days are too long. It’s very, very hot. You know, in North Carolina in the summer, it can be 90, 95, even 100. And some of the workers I interviewed said that they’ll work ’til—they’ll work across the field. They’ll be dying of thirst, so it might take another hour for them to, you know, weed or pluck unwanted flowers off the plants, and take them an hour to get back to the trucks where the water was. And they say they felt extremely thirsty, extremely uncomfortable.

AMY GOODMAN: Human Rights Watch found many child tobacco workers are expected to operate dangerous machinery, lift heavy loads, climb to perilous heights to hang tobacco for drying. One boy, who preferred not to be named, described the dangers he faces on the job.

CHILD TOBACCO WORKER 4: [translated] Almost all of us climb up onto the wooden beams, that are 10-, 15-, 20-, 30-meters high. Sometimes you can step in the wrong place and fall all the way down. If you suffer an accident, you can even lose your life. It’s very dangerous.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Steven Greenhouse, this is dangerous for adults, let alone children. You write, “Opponents of child labor note [that] Brazil, India and some other tobacco-producing nations already prohibit anyone under 18 from working on tobacco farms.” What happened here?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, three years ago, then-Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis proposed some broad new restrictions against child labor. You know, she proposed that no children under 16 work in tobacco fields. And as part of that package, she said no children under 16 should work with power-driven equipment, like tractors. She also proposed that no children under 18 work in grain silos. You know, there were some horrendous stories about kids being crushed to death in grain silos. Then, as often happens in the United States, there was a huge backlash by industry, by farmers saying, “This is terrible. We need these workers. It’s important to have young workers learning agriculture. And if you ban them, it’s going to really hurt the next generation of people in farming.” And the Obama administration—this was now in 2012 during his re-election campaign, and basically, the Obama administration caved and withdrew Secretary Solis’s proposal. So now what’s happening, Amy, is some advocates are trying to kind of refloat this idea just with regard to tobacco, thinking that in President Obama’s last two years of office, with all these elections and politics behind him, he might have the courage to go forward with this ban on tobacco workers under age 16.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me read the Obama administration comment, a statement, the press release that it issued. The Obama administration issued a press statement that read: “The Obama administration is firmly committed to promoting family farmers and respecting the rural way of life, especially the role that parents and other family members play in passing those traditions down through the generations.” Your response, Steven Greenhouse?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, I should have explained, Amy. So, after Secretary Solis proposed this, all these farmers said, you know, “We run family farms. We need our 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds and 14-year-olds able to work on the farms.” And the Obama administration has explicitly exempted family farms and kids on those—you know, and children on those farms from these rules. Nonetheless, there was such a firestorm against these proposals, you know, not just by agricultural interests, but by many Republican lawmakers, and then some Democratic lawmakers in the farm states also got very worried that it might hurt their re-election, and President Obama thought it might cause him to lose certain states. So he basically—you know, I use the word “caved.” And he said, “We’re not going to really consider these proposals for the remainder of my administration,” which is pretty strong language. But Human Rights Watch and other groups are really pushing now and saying, you know, “Tobacco work is so unhealthy for kids. Let’s make this one exception and bar this in your last two years of office.”

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to Graham Boyd, the executive vice president for the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina. He told you most tobacco farmers go beyond what is required in terms of labor compliance, saying, “There is absolutely zero benefit in mistreating farm workers.” He went on to acknowledge the danger of nicotine poisoning and other tough conditions in the fields, saying, quote, “No one is going to say it’s a day at the beach.” Steven Greenhouse?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yes. So, I was surprised when I interviewed some of the folks from the Tobacco Growers Associations. You know, I wasn’t surprised that they said, “We hardly hire anyone under 16, anyone under 18.” But when I asked them, you know, “What would you think about proposals to ban kids under 16?” they said they were open to it, even kids under 18. They’re facing a lot of pressure from one cigarette company, which has really taken the lead on this. Philip Morris International has adopted a proposal far, far stricter than the U.S. government regulations. You know, Philip Morris International bars any of its growers from using people, workers under age 18, and it has banned, barred 20 growers in the United States over the past year for using workers under age 18. R.J. Reynolds and Altria, you know, the two other giant cigarette companies, have not adopted proposals nearly as strong. They’re saying, “We hate illegal child labor.” Everyone hates illegal child labor. And they say, “We think kids under 18 should not be doing hazardous work.” But they—you know, Reynolds and Altria don’t see regular tobacco work in the fields, where people are getting green tobacco sickness, as hazardous.

AMY GOODMAN: What was Hilda Solis’s response herself, the secretary of labor, who pushed so hard for this?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: I tried to interview Secretary Solis on this, but I didn’t hear back. I think she—you know, I think she was pretty courageous in pushing for this, but I think she doesn’t want to be seen as criticizing the Obama administration right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And how many children do you think are working in the fields in the States?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: I think certainly several hundred. Some people say thousands. I think that might be a high number, but certainly several hundred. And there are a lot of kids, 13, 14, 15, working. I interviewed a lot of 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds who said, “I began at the age of 12.” I interviewed this 13-year-old, Saray, whose picture is on the front page. I interviewed her 22-year-old sister. The 22-year-old sister said, “I’ve been doing this since the age of 12.” So it really is quite prevalent.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to, before we go, get to another piece you recently wrote about wage theft. Talk about what that is and where it’s happening.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, when I was in North Carolina, it’s funny, I was interviewing some folks, and some of the workers were saying, “I suffered wage theft.” I said, “What is wage theft?” So, you know, many, many employers violate minimum-wage laws or don’t pay time and a half when workers work more than 40 hours a week. Or when workers work, say, 45, 50 hours a week and should be getting overtime, some hours will magically disappear from their electronic timecards and will just say they worked 39 or 40 hours, so they don’t get overtime. Sometimes employers will illegally steal tips that waiters, waitresses, bartenders deserve, and it’s illegal for managers to take tips. And all those different schemes to deprive workers of their rightful wages, that’s been called wage theft. And there’s a growing push by advocates to get not just the U.S. Labor Department, but state labor departments, to get much more aggressive about it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but I thank you very much, Steven Greenhouse, author of “Just 13, and Working Risky 12-Hour Shifts in the Tobacco Fields,” his latest piece, also author of the book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.” He’s the longtime labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times. We’ll link to the articles on wage theft and children working in the tobacco fields of the United States at

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