On a warm January afternoon in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, Sandra, a forty-year-old tobacco farmer, dragged a lawn chair to a clearing in her front yard and motioned for me to sit. She was round-faced, with wispy blonde hair pulled into a messy ponytail, her skin creased from years of working in the sun. 

“We’ve been growing tobacco since we were twelve or thirteen,” she said, as her husband sat beside her. “Our parents planted tobacco.”

A 17-year-old worker stands in a field of harvested tobacco plants in Kentucky.

© 2013 Marcus Bleasdale/VII for Human Rights Watch

I was two days into a month-long trip to investigate child labor in tobacco farming in Brazil, which in 2008 banned all work on the crop by children under eighteen. I had spent two years researching the issue in the United States, where children can legally be hired to work on tobacco farms at age twelve. 

Both countries are among the top five global tobacco producers—Brazil is number two and the United States is number four. But the United States has no restrictions on children working in tobacco farming, despite known dangers including nicotine poisoning, pesticide exposure, heat illness, and injuries. I was curious to see how Brazil’s ban was working.

Sandra—whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, as with others quoted in this article—plants a few hectares of tobacco each year and sells it to a multinational company that supplies tobacco leaf to the world’s largest cigarette manufacturers. She and her husband do most of the work on the farm themselves. They have two children: a daughter in her midtwenties who moved away from home to go to college in a nearby city, and a fourteen-year-old son, Matteo, a tall boy with a square jaw and braces.

“Our daughter, when she lived here, she helped,” Sandra told me. “She did everything, from the harvest to planting. She started helping when she was about fourteen.” But Matteo claimed he does not do much work on the farm. “I help a little bit, but mostly I stay on the Internet,” he said, smiling.

I was skeptical. I understood that farmers would be reluctant to talk about child labor with a foreigner who had arrived at their door unannounced, speaking through an interpreter. After what I’d seen in my research in the United States, I had a hard time believing that the strong, athletic boy slumped in a chair across from me sat at home on the computer while his parents worked long hours in the fields.

A 15-year-old worker removes flowers from the tops of tobacco plants on a farm in North Carolina. Many children work in fields of tall tobacco plants, pulling the flowers off the tops of plants, among other tasks. Most work without gloves or other protective gear, exposing them to nicotine and pesticides.

© 2013 Human Rights Watch

But the family insisted it was mindful of the new law. Sandra warned of penalties if their son was caught working, though she wasn’t sure what the penalties would be. “They can take you to court,” she said. “The company says there’s no way children can work in tobacco farming.” Sandra and her husband hire a few adult workers to help on the farm during the harvest.

I learned that Matteo, who attends the local high school and hopes to study microelectronics, does help on the farm in the summer, but not nearly as much as his older sister did. He takes water to his parents in the fields. He loads piles of brittle, dried tobacco leaves into a wooden crate to form bales that weigh more than 130 pounds. Every so often, he helps his parents harvest tobacco, picking the thick green leaves by hand and holding them under his arm. “I don’t allow him to work when the leaves are wet,” Sandra told me. “It can make him sick.”

A year and a half earlier, I had interviewed a fourteen-year-old girl on a humid July morning as she prepared for a day of work on a tobacco farm in eastern North Carolina. It was her first week on the job, and she had gotten sick. 

“My head started hurting, and I kind of felt like throwing up,” she told me. The tobacco plants were dripping wet from dew and rain, and her clothes got soaked while she worked in fields. “I just go home in my wet clothes,” she said. 

Her symptoms are consistent with nicotine poisoning, an occupational health risk specific to tobacco farming. When tobacco is wet, and especially when the weather is warm and humid, nicotine dissolves in the moisture on the leaf’s surface and can be absorbed through the skin. Common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness, and children are affected more severely than adults. 

In our research in the United States, my colleague and I interviewed more than 140 child workers, most of whom had started working at age twelve or thirteen. Two-thirds reported symptoms of nicotine poisoning. Most had never been told anything about the illness by their employers, though some knew their symptoms were linked to working in wet conditions.

But Sandra knew about nicotine poisoning, or “green leaf sickness,” as it’s called in Brazil. A tobacco company instructor came to the farm to give the family health and safety information about nicotine and pesticide exposure, as well as Brazil’s child labor restrictions. He warned them not to harvest when the tobacco was wet, and to wear the protective gear provided by the company at a cost to the family. The gear she described—water-resistant pants and a long-sleeved jacket with air vents in the back—was hot and uncomfortable, but it helped her stay dry when the fields were wet. 

The child tobacco workers I interviewed in the United States received no protective equipment. Most brought plastic garbage bags from home, poked holes for their heads and arms, and pulled them on to try—often unsuccessfully—to keep their clothes dry.

Sandra and her husband also received a separate set of equipment for applying pesticides, including a mask. Tobacco production in Brazil—as in the United States—involves applying a range of toxic chemicals at various stages in the season. Sandra’s husband had taken a pesticide safety course offered by the company two years earlier. “It helped me realize I was doing it wrong,” he said. When I asked if anyone in the family had gotten sick after working with the pesticides, they shook their heads.

The children I had interviewed in the United States had not been given any pesticide safety training, and more than half reported seeing tractors spraying pesticides in fields near where they were working. They said they could taste and feel the spray drift over them. They said it made their eyes and skin burn, and caused them to vomit, feel dizzy, and have trouble breathing. 

Children are especially vulnerable to harm from pesticides because their bodies and brains are still developing. The long-term effects of childhood pesticide exposure can include cancer, problems with learning and cognition, and reproductive health issues.

Over the next three weeks, I interviewed almost eighty farming families in Brazil’s three largest tobacco-growing states: Paraná, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul. 

Like Sandra and her husband, they were small-scale growers, selling to one—or sometimes several—Brazilian or multinational tobacco companies. They greeted me with the same warm hospitality, spreading lawn chairs in their front yards and passing around a traditional communal cup of steaming chimarrão, a kind of tea. Even though the farmers sold to a dozen different tobacco companies, their experiences were remarkably similar.

All of them knew that children under eighteen are prohibited from work in tobacco farming. Most families said their farms had not been inspected by government officials and could not describe the specific consequences of a child labor violation, but they feared the penalties just the same.

“If someone from the company came out, and we had our fourteen-year-old son out in tobacco, it would be very difficult for us,” a lean fifty-year-old farmer I met in Rio Grande do Sul told me.

Ministry of Labor and Employment officials I interviewed told me their offices are understaffed; they don’t have enough inspectors to enforce labor laws consistently and effectively. But the families I interviewed saw the threat of punishment as real, and it prompted them to change how their children worked on farms.

Some parents also understood that tobacco farming had health consequences, and didn’t want their children exposed to the work. Beatriz, a fifty-two-year-old farmer in Paraná, had an uneven gait, and suffered from chronic leg and back pain and kidney problems, which she attributed to years of work in the fields. She said she hallucinates and gets dizzy when harvesting tobacco. 

“They say it’s because of the nicotine that goes through the skin,” Beatriz told me. Although she was among the poorest farmers I met, she chose to hire workers rather than send her seventeen-year-old daughter to the fields. “I don’t let her do it,” she said. “I grew up working in tobacco, and now I have health problems.” Many other families told me they hired workers during the harvest, or swapped work days with neighbors and family members on other farms, rather than risk using their children.

Several farmers showed me the contracts they signed with tobacco companies, which included clauses about the child labor ban. Some families said company instructors checked with teachers and principals to verify children’s school attendance. 

They wore the same water-resistant suits and pesticide safety gear that Sandra’s family had, and had the same colorful booklets with smiling tobacco farmers happily harvesting green leaves and spraying pesticides while wearing company-furnished protective equipment. The uniformity was striking, across all three states, from families living near urban areas to those in remote towns.

In the United States, I had interviewed dozens of children working fifty or sixty hours a week as hired laborers on tobacco farms. I saw them get drenched while working in wet tobacco fields with nothing but plastic trash bags to protect them from the nicotine and pesticide residues seeping into their skin. They described searing headaches, sudden vomiting, and dizziness that lasted all through the night.

The contrast between Brazil and the United States was stark and overwhelming. 

Child labor has not been completely eliminated on Brazil’s tobacco farms. Children still work in the tobacco fields, driven there by economic duress, as in the United States.

Rural poverty remains a problem in many parts of Brazil, and many farmworker advocates are concerned about what they see as unfair practices by large tobacco companies. Farm families are not guaranteed minimum earnings. The companies determine both the price of the agricultural inputs—seeds, pesticides, and other supplies, which farmers are required to buy from the companies—as well as the price and classification of the tobacco leaf once it’s harvested. Small farmers have little control or room to negotiate.

“It’s a yearly battle,” a thirty-two-year-old farmer in Santa Catarina told me. Many farmers carried debts with the companies through the season and paid them off after the harvest. Sometimes, even then, they came up short.

But progress is being made on helping families understand the health hazards of the work, especially for children. This did not happen overnight. Some parents grumbled about how children would never learn to work if they were kept out of the fields until they were eighteen.

Amelia, a sixty-three-year-old grandmother in Paraná, framed it as a question: “You know what happens to children who don’t work? They become drunks.” A man in his midsixties in Santa Catarina gestured to his thirty-eight-year-old daughter and her thirty-five-year-old husband, who both worked as children, and said, “See? They didn’t die. They’re still here.”

Ultimately, though, the strict regulation and penalties pushed people to end or limit their children’s work on the farm. No such constraints are keeping kids out of the tobacco fields in the United States. Here, the child labor provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act—the federal law governing the employment of children—treat agricultural work differently from work in all other sectors. 

Children of any age can work on small farms with parental permission. Children can be hired at age twelve to work on a farm of any size, for unlimited hours outside of school—day or night—provided they have written parental consent or work on a farm where a parent is employed.

In all other employment sectors, sixteen is the minimum age for most jobs, and younger children can work only in certain jobs for limited hours. At sixteen, children working in agriculture can do jobs deemed “particularly hazardous” by the U.S. Secretary of Labor, while children in all other sectors have to be eighteen to do hazardous work.

For years my colleagues at Human Rights Watch and other children’s advocates pushed for a bill in Congress to provide child farmworkers with the same protections as workers in other sectors, but the bill was never brought to a vote.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor introduced regulations that would have updated the decades-old list of hazardous occupations prohibited for children under sixteen working in agriculture, and banned all work by these children in tobacco farming. The proposal was withdrawn after it drew opposition from agricultural interest groups.

Prohibiting children under eighteen from working with a crop as toxic as tobacco may not sound like a radical notion. In most of the country, a person must be eighteen to buy a pack of cigarettes legally; California and New York City have raised this to twenty-one. 

Yet on the day in May 2014 that we published our report, a tobacco company spokesman was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that banning children from tobacco work “is really contrary to a lot of the current practices that are in place in the U.S. and is at odds in these communities where family farming is really a way of life.”

Since we published our report, some tobacco companies and tobacco growers’ associations have adopted new child labor policies, or strengthened their existing policies. Now, most major players in the U.S. tobacco industry agree that children under sixteen should not be hired to work in tobacco farming. It’s an important step, but it still means sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are in U.S. tobacco fields doing work that could make them sick.

The U.S. government has been reluctant to revisit the regulations issue. In April, bills were introduced in both the Senate and the House to ban children under eighteen from hazardous work on U.S. tobacco farms, but prospects are dim for legislative change in the current Congress.

With only incremental changes made toward eliminating child labor in tobacco farming in the United States, it is heartening to know that Brazilian tobacco farmers who were raised working in the fields are now thinking differently about child labor. The United States should take note of the example being set by its neighbor to the south.