By JACKSON ZAVALA, age 11

Federal labor law allows children working on the farms to work longer hours, at younger ages, and in more hazardous conditions than all other jobs for children, with permission from their parents. PHOTO: Human Rights Watch
Federal labor law allows children working on the farms to work longer hours, at younger ages, and in more hazardous conditions than all other jobs for children, with permission from their parents.
PHOTO: Human Rights Watch

Virtually every day in the summer, there are kids in the United States who work on tobacco farms from sunup to sunset.

The children work in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, where 90 percent of America’s tobacco is grown. Most of these kids, ranging in age from seven to 17, are the children of Latino immigrants. They usually work for minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, to help support their poor families.

Margaret Wurth, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit human rights organization, co-authored a report on kids’ experiences at the farms. On her first day, she saw a 12-year-old boy working in 90-degree heat without a hat or shoes, only wearing a garbage bag for protection, she told IndyKids.

Nicotine, which is a poisonous chemical, can get absorbed into the skin when a person touches the wet tobacco leaves. As a result, kids get an illness called “Green Tobacco Sickness,” which can lead to vomiting, dizziness and irregular heart rates. There are also long-term effects like respiratory problems and cancer due to exposure to pesticides.

Federal labor law allows children working on the farms to work longer hours, at younger ages, and in more hazardous conditions than all other jobs for children, if they have permission from their parents. Wurth estimates that a few thousand children work on tobacco farms each year.

But changes might be on the way for young workers: in September, 35 Democrats in the House of Representatives officially requested a ban on kids under 18 working in hazardous conditions on tobacco farms, citing Wurth’s Human Rights Watch report.
“Truthfully, it’s work that’s so dangerous that really only adult farm workers should be doing most of the work on tobacco farms in this country,” said Wurth.