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Kids Toiling in America's Tobacco Fields

Marcus Bleasdale and Human Rights Watch

Children half the smoking age are reportedly laboring in tobacco fields across the burley belt. It’s hard to tell how many or how old they are, but one study found one in 10 working in North Carolina's tobacco is younger than 18.

Baldemar Velasquez, president of the AFL-CIO's Farm Labor Organizing Committee, says the pattern is similar in Kentucky.

He says children work to help their families get by, typically starting in their early teens, but sometimes much younger.

"Seven, eight on up,” he says. “We've seen kids this summer that were 13, 15, and they'd tell us they were working in tobacco for seven years, five years."

The major tobacco companies all have policies against child labor, but a federal loophole intended for farm families leaves the practice in a legal gray area.

Most growers insist they obey the law, to the best of their ability.

Velasquez says he worked in tobacco as a teen – in fact, low wages meant he started working in other crops with his family at six.

He says, “It was either that or not eating."

The families, often here illegally, are at the mercy of labor contractors, he says.

And economic pressures mean farm owners and cigarette companies look the other way when crew leaders break the law.

"Doesn't matter to the crew leader, the labor contractor, because he gets the money from the harvest,” Velasquez explains. “He doesn't care how small the hands are that are putting the cut tobacco on the trailer, as long as the acres get done."

According to a separate report from Human Rights Watch, half of tobacco workers make below minimum wage. It found 12-hour days are common, and 16-hour days not unusual.

The reports say the children are especially vulnerable to green tobacco sickness – basically nicotine poisoning.

Velasquez says the victims get dizzy and nauseous – like a non-smoker with the blood nicotine of a pack-a-day habit.

"When you try to eat, nothing tastes right,” he says. “Workers say they try to drink milk 'cause it's the only thing that they can consume when you get really, really sick."

The Human Rights Watch report says half of tobacco workers make below minimum wage. 

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