New research published in the
reinforces just how dangerous American Journal of Industrial Medicine agricultural work is for children in the United States – and how unprepared most are for what they face in the fields.
US child workers die in agriculture than in any other industry. Every day, 33 children are injured while working on US farms. And they receive frighteningly little safety training, making their work in demanding environments even more dangerous.
Wake Forest School of Medicine interviewed 30 child farmworkers, ages 10 to 17, and published their findings in two articles that describe how children are pressured to work quickly, with little control over their hours or the nature of their work.
The children interviewed feared having their pay docked or being fired if they couldn’t keep up.
They received little – if any – safety training. One 14-year-old worker said: “When you’re chopping with the machete, they say, ‘Oh, be careful, like, to not hurt yourself,’ but that’s basically it.”
Children I’ve interviewed for Human Rights Watch investigations of
child labor in US tobacco farming had similar experiences, working long hours in extreme heat with virtually no safety training.
One 15-year-old child worker told me his mom – also a farmworker – was hospitalized after being sprayed with pesticides, but even then, his employer never told him how protect himself: “He just said, ‘Be careful.’ That’s all.”
Telling a 14-year-old to be careful with a machete, or a 15-year-old to be careful around pesticides, is hardly adequate safety training. Safety training is essential for all workers, but children shouldn’t be allowed to do such dangerous work in the first place.
Loopholes in US labor law make it legal for children as young as 12 to work unlimited hours on farms of any size with parental permission, as long as they don’t miss school. There is no minimum age for children to work on small farms or family farms.
The new research shows the dire consequences of allowing children to work in such a dangerous sector. But
a bill currently in the US House of Representatives would give child farmworkers the same protections as children working in other sectors, limiting their hours and raising the minimum age to begin work.
Members of Congress should enact this bill and ensure child farmworkers in the US are finally protected.
A 16-year-old tobacco worker in North Carolina outside the mobile home where she lives with her mother, three sisters, two brothers, and nephew in North Carolina. Since she turned 12, she has spent her school summer vacations working as a hired laborer on tobacco farms to help support her family. “With the money that I earn, I help my mom. I give her gas money. I buy food from the tobacco [work] for us to eat,” she said. “Then I try to save up the money so I can have my school supplies and school stuff like clothes and shoes.”
© 2015 Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch A 16-year-old tobacco worker standing in a tobacco field in North Carolina wearing her work clothes. “I don’t feel any different in the fields than when I was 12,” she said. “I [still] get headaches and … my stomach hurts. And like I feel nauseous…. I just feel like my stomach is like rumbling around. I feel like I’m gonna throw up.”
© 2015 Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch “Alejandro,” a 17-year-old tobacco worker, in the living room of his family’s mobile home in eastern North Carolina. “I work in tobacco to help my mom pay some bills,” he said.
“Sofia,” a 17-year-old tobacco worker, on a dirt road near her home in North Carolina.
She said she trains for the cross-country team after working 50 to 60 hours a week in tobacco farming: “The feeling when you’re running … It’s awesome. I love it…. Since I’m working, I have to practice on my own because I can’t go to practice. So on the weekends and Friday nights, I’ll go out and run down the dirt path, and I’ll just do that until I’ve run three miles.
“Sofia,” a 17-year-old tobacco worker, in a tobacco field in North Carolina. She started working at 13, and she said her mother was the only one who taught her how to protect herself in the fields: “None of my bosses or contractors or crew leaders have ever told us anything about pesticides and how we can protect ourselves from them….When I worked with my mom, she would take care of me, and she would like always make sure I was okay.…Our bosses don’t give us anything except for our checks. That’s it.”
© 2015 Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch “Matthew,” a 16-year-old tobacco worker, outside the mobile home where he lives with his family. “When you first eat and start working it hurts in your stomach. It’s hurting,” he said. “You feel like you need to throw up.”
© 2015 Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch “Sara” (left) and “Susana,” 16-year-old twin sisters who worked together on tobacco farms in 2015, sit in their bedroom in the clothes they wear to try to protect themselves in tobacco fields. They described working near areas where pesticides were being applied. Susana said, “We are just working … and the worker is on the tractor spraying almost very close to us. But they don’t take us out of that area. They don’t even warn us that it is dangerous. Nothing. We are just working and we cover ourselves well because the smell is very strong, and we get sick with the smell of that spray.” Sara said, “I feel dizzy, very dizzy because the smell is unbearable. It’s very strong and my stomach begins to feel stirred. I feel as if I am going to faint right then and there from the smell.”
© 2015 Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch “Alejandro,” a 17-year-old almost six-feet-tall, has been working in tobacco farming since he was 14. He told Human Rights Watch he often loses his appetite while working in the fields, a symptom associated with nicotine exposure: “You don’t feel like eating … Sometimes when I eat, I don’t know, my stomach don’t take it…. And then the food that I eat makes me feel sick.”
A 16-year-old tobacco worker in her backyard in North Carolina. She said, “When I got hired, nobody asked my age. They didn’t care. They just wanted people to work.”
© 2015 Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch An 18-year-old tobacco worker who started working in tobacco farming when he was 15. “We leave here at 5 a.m. and get there at 6 a.m. We get back at 6 or 7 p.m.,” he said. “I usually don’t eat until 10 or 11 [a.m.], and the smell [of the tobacco] and an empty stomach, you can’t hold it in. You vomit. It happened to me a couple days ago.”
© 2015 Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch Dr. Sara Quandt and Dr. Thomas Arcury are faculty at Wake Forest School of Medicine. “Children are not small adults,” Dr. Quandt said. Dr. Arcury added, “If we think about children as children, because that’s what they are, we’re putting them to work in the nation’s most hazardous industry: agriculture. We’re putting people who are not only biologically immature, but behaviorally immature and asking them to work with adults. We’re putting them into a situation in which they are exposed to pesticides, they’re exposed to machinery and sharp tools, they’re exposed to the heat.”
© 2015 Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch Dr. David Tayloe, Jr., a pediatrician in North Carolina, told Human Rights Watch that, “Green Tobacco Sickness is all about exposure of the skin to green tobacco…. And so the nicotine that’s on the plant, in the plant, gets secreted out the pores of the plant, can be absorbed by the skin of a human being. And the nicotine can make you sick.”
© 2015 Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch Gloves used by “Sofia,” a 17-year-old tobacco worker. She told Human Rights Watch that she has to purchase her own protective gear.
© 2015 Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch A portable toilet in a tobacco field in North Carolina. Teenage children interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported inconsistent access to bathroom facilities while working on tobacco farms.
A tobacco field in North Carolina.
© 2015 Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch