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Despite a worldwide decline in production, tobacco remains North Carolina's most valuable crop. During the picking season, it's all hands on deck — and some of those hands belong to kids as young as 7 years old.
The Fair Labor Standards Act makes exceptions to child labor laws for small farms, and allows hires as young as 12 for larger ones.
Melissa Bailey Castillo, outreach coordinator at the Kinston Community Health Center in Kinston, North Carolina, in the heart of the region's tobacco country, tells Here & Now's Robin Young that the industry's rules are not strict enough and that current regulations are rarely enforced.
"It's kind of a legacy in eastern North Carolina," Castillo says. "Either your neighbor owns a farm, or a relative owns a farm. Tobacco obviously is part of that heritage, and kids have been working in it, farmers will tell you, for generations."
On what work in tobacco fields involves
"It is definitely dangerous. There's a lot of spraying going on, from the time you plant until the time you harvest. Right now, the crop is getting ready to top, which is where you cut the flower off the top, or you also take the bottom leaves off the bottom. Once the tobacco plant gets to be about 3 or 4 feet tall, it's taller than a lot of the children out there. Here in North Carolina, we had a heat index of 109, which would probably make it closer to 115, 117 degrees inside the field."
"This nicotine is absorbed through the skin. It's not unusual that by lunchtime, you're throwing up, you're vomiting."Melissa Bailey Castillo
On nicotine poisoning
"Green tobacco sickness is nicotine poisoning. It's hard to work with gloves in this crop, because you tend to tear the leaves and the farmer doesn't like that. It's also, the gloves you put on, the leaves will start to stick to the glove. So you're barehanded, a lot of times you're barefooted, because of the roots and the mud. By midday, their hands are covered in tar. Maybe they've taken off their shirt, maybe they didn't know how to dress to begin with, so they've gone in short sleeves instead of long sleeves. In any case, this nicotine is absorbed through the skin. It's not unusual that by lunchtime, you're throwing up, you're vomiting. Regulations say a handwashing station in a bathroom, et cetera. But that's not the reality in the field. Some of the larger operations, they will have that. A lot of operations do not have that."
On the secrecy surrounding children working in tobacco fields
"First of all, the children that show up in the clinic, maybe they'll say they ate something bad ... in any case, you don't have child workers walking through the door saying, 'Oh I worked in tobacco and now I'm sick.' They may look at a parent like, 'What do I say?' Or the parent will be like, 'No no no no, they weren't working,' out of fear. And they've been warned, 'You can't tell anybody that your child's working, because you could get in trouble, your child could be taken from you' — none of which is true. So there is a certain sense of, 'We have to hide this,' and then obviously after a lot of the work that's been done by Human Rights Watch, [North Carolina Focus on Increasing Education Leadership and Dignity], us, they know now that there's some controversy."
"The last summer that I was out doing a count, I stopped at 100 kids in two counties — that's just who I found."Melissa Bailey Castillo
On efforts to regulate this work, and pushback from farm lobbying groups
"On the ground, these children were employed by contractors. They were not being protected, they were not being paid appropriately. They were being paid in cash. Once we put some pressure on growers and warned them about contractors who weren't paying children appropriately, and we started really communicating that ... American Farm Bureau, they want to tell one story, and that story is, 'Families work on farms, and if you do anything to impact a child's right to learn how to farm, then you're destroying the American farm.' However, that on the ground in eastern North Carolina could not be further from the truth.
"First of all, the farms impacted most by child farm workers, they were enormous operations, corporate farms. It was not a matter of the Smiths down the road employing children through a contractor — that was rare, if at all. So it becomes very difficult when you're trying to change labor laws, and you have a voice as loud, as prominent, as strong as American Farm Bureau. It shuts down the real conversation, and the real conversation is that in the state of North Carolina, contractors, they have no guidelines, there are no laws, there are no policies. The only thing that these contractors have to do is register as labor contractors through the federal Department of Labor."
On the difficulty of finding people to work in tobacco fields
"We have growers both large and medium-sized and small sending for H-2A visa workers. They don't track who overstays their visa. It just seems to make more sense to go ahead and acknowledge the work force, give them some work protections and work permissions and stop sending for more workers, and then you're not even tracking who's coming and going.
"I just am very disappointed in Farm Bureau for not acknowledging that you literally have a couple of different labor forces here: You have the family farm, yes, it still exists, alive and well. You have some small growers who have teenagers working with them, but they take them to the seed sale and they teach them about farming, and they think of these children as an extension of their own family. We have that, and those children are Hispanic. And then we have, unfortunately, contractors and corporate farms with thousands of acres where these children are in danger. And those are the children that need to be protected — and there aren't a few.
"The last summer that I was out doing a count, I stopped at 100 kids in two counties — that's just who I found."
Here & Now received this statement from the American Farm Bureau Federation in response to Castillo's statements:
Your advocate says she is aware of bad practices — cash payments for work, no employee records, no safety oversight, lack of water– in tobacco fields. All of these are either illegal or practices no responsible person would support. AFBF neither promotes nor condones any of them. If the person you interviewed witnessed such behavior, we hope she reported it to the appropriate authorities.
Farm Bureau advocates for the interests of farmers. Our policies are set out by our delegates — everyday agricultural producers who are very proud of their heritage. We are not in the business of protecting, promoting or prosecuting bad actors.
Farm kids can and should have the opportunity to work on their family’s farms. Those same opportunities can be enormously beneficial for off-farm adolescents as well — not only by helping to preserve that way of life but in instilling in young adults a work ethic they can take with them their entire lives.
The American Farm Bureau has never and would never attempt to silence any one’s right to free speech. Nothing about our advocacy keeps worker advocates from speaking up for people who have been authentically wronged.
This article was originally published on July 12, 2018.
This segment aired on July 12, 2018.
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