Human rights group says children working NC tobacco fields - - Columbia, South Carolina |

Human rights group says children working NC tobacco fields

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An international human rights group issued a report Wednesday claiming children as young as 7 years old are working in tobacco fields in the United States. An international human rights group issued a report Wednesday claiming children as young as 7 years old are working in tobacco fields in the United States.

An international human rights group issued a report Wednesday claiming children as young as 7 years old are working in tobacco fields in the United States -- claims that are hotly contested by local farmers and tobacco groups in North Carolina.

The nearly 200-page report from Human Rights Watch says the organization interviewed more than 140 children between the ages of 7 and 17 years old working on farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Human Rights Watch said the average age of those interviewed was 15, and the average age when they started working was 13.

The report says 80 children worked in North Carolina, 46 were in Kentucky, 12 in Tennessee and three were in Virginia. Eight children worked for less than a full week on farms, and four of the youngest children worked with their parents "sporadically and without pay."

One of the children, 15-year-old Grace S., told Human Rights Watch that she started working in tobacco farming in North Carolina because she "wanted to help out my mom, help her with the money."

The report also says the children harvesting tobacco get covered in pesticides and have no protective gear to keep them safe from absorbing nicotine through their skin while they harvest the leaves. It said that 97 out of 133 children from all of the states reported feeling sick while working on the farms, and that their symptoms were "consistent with acute nicotine poisoning."

Human Rights Watch said it did not ask eight of the children it interviewed if they ever felt ill.

"I wore plastic bags because our clothes got wet in the morning," 14-year-old Fabiana H. told Human Rights Watch said of working on a Lenoir County farm. "They put holes in the bags so our hands could go through them. It kept some of my clothes dry, but I still got wet.

"Then the sun comes out and you feel suffocated in the bags. You want to take them off."

Emilio R., a 16-year-old who is a seasonal worker in Lenoir County, told Human Rights Watch that he sometimes had headaches that could last up to two days.

"With the headaches, it was hard to do anything at all," Emilio R. said. "I didn't want to move my head."

The Tobacco Growers Association of N.C., however, contests that the Department of Labor recorded only one incident of child labor violations in the state, and that was during the 2012 crop season. The group said the departments of labor are required to make unannounced inspection visits to farms in order to assure compliance.

"The fact that HRW points to 141 incidents of children working in a farm environment should be considered as isolated and rare occurrences in the United States and most certainly in North Carolina," the Tobacco Growers Association of N.C. said in a statement. "The findings in this report should be viewed in this country as the exception rather than the norm."

  • Click Here to read the Tobacco Growers Association's response

While Human Rights Watch recognized that the practice of children working on farms is not illegal, the organization insists the practice is not right. Labor laws in the U.S. permit children to be engaged in certain types of agricultural work.

"A child of any age may be employed by his or her parent or person standing in place of the parent at any time in any occupation on a farm owned or operated by that parent or person standing in place of that parent," according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Minors may also be employed on farms if they are student-learners, 14- and 15-year-olds can work on farms as part of 4-H programs, and 14- and 15-year-old may work on farms as part of the U.S. Office of Education Vocational Agriculture Training Program.

In all cases, the Department of Labor requires the employer to maintain records about any minors employed on the farm.

Three years ago, the Department of Labor proposed a change to keep kids under the age of 16 from working on tobacco farms, but it dropped that proposal in 2012. Currently the Department of Labor says minors who are at least 16 years old "may perform any farm job, including agricultural occupations declared hazardous by the Secretary of Labor."

Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, has endorsed a proposal to make it illegal for anyone under 18 to work on a tobacco farm in the United States. The report did not specifically state how many children interviewed were between 16 and 17 years old, only that the median age of those interviewed was 15.

The North Carolina Growers Association says laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act protect children who are working in agriculture, and tobacco companies who contract with farmers to grow their crop are concerned about violating child labor laws.

"It just defies logic to me that a farmer would knowingly employ a child 7 years old to work on the farm," said Lee Wicker, deputy director of the N.C. Growers Association.

John Weaver, who has run a tobacco farm for more than 20 years, said he was stunned when he heard the report's claims.

"It’s a witch hunt without a witch," Weaver said. "I haven't seen children on the farm in 20 to 25 years. … I don't know anyone who hires any child labor."

He said hand harvesting is outmoded, and 80 to 85 percent of the tobacco is harvested by a machine.

"Virtually no one harvests by hand anymore," Weaver said.

The Tobacco Growers Association of N.C. says each season North Carolina produces about 400 million pounds of flue-cured tobacco on 180,000 acres of land. The group further says 50 percent of tobacco in the state is machine harvested and 100 percent of farm tobacco is packaged by automatic bailing machines.

Human Rights Watch said farm operators across the U.S. reported hiring 130,232 children under the age of 18 to work on crop and livestock farms in 2012.

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Steve Sbraccia

Steve is an award-winning reporter for WNCN and former assistant professor. A seasoned professional, Steve is proud to call the Triangle home since 2005 after over two decades in Boston, Mass. 

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