“I really didn’t have a childhood and I don’t want [my own children] to go through what I did,” 17-year-old Marcos S. told Human Rights Watch. “You’re a kid only once. Once you get old you have to work.”
Marcos, who lives in North Carolina, said he started working in agriculture full time when he was 12 years old. Among other things, from late November to late December, he cuts Christmas trees. Marcos explained what his work was like when he was 12 years old. He said:
I did two things. One, I used a machine. It didn’t cut the trees but it dug them out with the roots so we could take them somewhere else. These were heavy because of the trees and the soil. I had to hold the tree when they were digging. Then you carry it on your shoulder to the truck. It was so heavy you couldn’t carry it by yourself so you had to do it in pairs.
Second, I cut the tree three to four inches from the ground. I put it in the machine to tie it. I put it on my shoulder and carried it to the trucks. . . .
When I was 12, the first day it was so heavy. The next day I didn’t even want to get up because my body hurt so bad but I knew I had to because I needed the money. I said “never again” but I had to because that was the only job.
Marcos told us that the first year he “used a chainsaw a couple of times but that was it. If someone was doing something else, they’d say, ‘Cut there.’” But when he returned to the same farm the next year at age 13, he used a chainsaw like everyone else. When asked if he was taught how to use it, he replied: “You just have to start it, that was the most important thing.” Marcos admitted that he didn’t always feel safe. “My uncle cut his leg using a chainsaw. Sometimes if you don’t do it right, it can bounce back—it can happen in a flash. My uncle, it was bad.”
While working, he said, he wore “just regular clothes, no gloves, masks, no protection. Regular shoes. . . . I never had any protective gear. . . . And it’s cold, it rains. We still have to work.”
Marcos said that pesticides were sprayed around him. “They spray to kill the insects that damage the trees. They do that for the trees that are still growing. . . . You don’t cut all the trees, they’re mixed in. They’re marked with a red ribbon, the ones they want you to cut. So the ones they don’t, they spray. You’re right there. . . . A big tank on their back and they go around. They did it when I was working. It smells so bad.”
He had never received any training on pesticides, he said. “They don’t say anything. They just want you to get it done. The guys that spray, they don’t even wear masks.”
Marcos said no one ever asked him how old he was, “You just come if you can work.” Still, he assumed his employers knew his age: “You can tell when someone is a kid, I mean, 12.” And, he noted, “There’s a lot of young kids working out there. . . . Last year [when I was 16] there were kids younger than me. When I was 13 . . . there were other kids. My cousin is the same age as me. He worked Christmas trees for other people.”
Marcos said he normally works weekends and school vacations, on different crops throughout the year. But the Christmas tree harvest is during the school year, and “sometimes they say, ‘We need you to come Monday.’ So I say, ‘I have school,’ but they’re going to pay me. . . . You pretty much have to choose work or school. They’re not part-time jobs. . . . So sometimes I have to choose work. . . . But in school there’s a limited number of times you can be absent. . . . Then I have homework to catch up on. I go to work, I come home. I stay up late to get it done.”
Marcos said that no one in his family had made it past the tenth grade, and his two older sisters had already dropped out to work. “My mom tells me, ‘You might want to get out of school and help me.’ I listen to her and respect her but I want to choose my future. I want to go as far as I can go.”
Human Rights Watch interview Marcos S. (not his real name), age 17, Jackson County, North Carolina, August 4, 2009.