Why Are Children Working in American Tobacco Fields?
This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.
The air was heavy and humid on the morning the three Cuello sisters joined their mother in the tobacco fields. The girls were dressed in jeans and long-sleeve shirts, carried burritos wrapped in aluminum foil, and had no idea what they were getting themselves into. “It was our first real job,” says Neftali, the youngest. She was 12 at the time. The middle sister, Kimberly, was 13. Yesenia was 14.
Their mother wasn’t happy for the company. After growing up in Mexico, she hadn’t crossed the border so that her kids could become farmworkers. But the girls knew their mom was struggling. She had left her husband and was supporting the family on the minimum wage. If her girls worked in the tobacco fields, it would quadruple the family’s summer earnings. “My mom tends to everybody,” Neftali says. This was a chance to repay that debt.
The sisters trudged into dense rows of bright green tobacco plants. Their task was to tear off flowers and remove small shoots from the stalks, a process called “topping and suckering.” They walked the rows, reaching deep into the wet leaves, and before long their clothes were soaked in the early morning dew. None of them knew that the dew represented a health hazard: when wet, tobacco leaves excrete nicotine, which is absorbed by the skin. One study estimated that on a humid day—and virtually every summer day in North Carolina is humid—a tobacco worker can be exposed to the nicotine equivalent of thirty-six cigarettes.
Their mother told the girls to stick together, but Neftali soon fell behind. “I was seeing little circles, and the sky started to get blurry,” she says. “It felt like my head was turned sideways.” Her mother ordered her to rest in the shade, but Neftali sat down only briefly. “I wanted to show that I could work like an adult,” she recalls. She soldiered on through a splitting headache and waves of dizziness. Several times, about to faint, she sank to the ground between rows to rest.
“I would find her looking confused,” Yesenia says.
Later in the day, Neftali heard someone retching. One row over, Kimberly was bent double, throwing up on the plants. Afterward, feeling slightly better, Kimberly resumed work, only to throw up again. When the twelve-hour shift finally came to an end, the sisters trudged back to their car. Neftali fell asleep on the short drive home, but that night, despite her fatigue, she was woken several times by the same dream: she was back in the tobacco fields, stumbling around in a daze, surrounded by suffocating plants.
The next morning, ignoring their mother’s pleas, the sisters went back for more. In all, the girls would spend four summers in the tobacco fields, working sixty hours during a typical week, their earnings usually $7.25 an hour. For many teens, memories of summer include a nostalgic mix of freedom and boredom, with lazy afternoons spent doing next to nothing. But the Cuello sisters mostly remember feeling exhausted, dizzy and nauseated. Only later would they learn why: the fields were poisoning them.
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Tar from the tobacco leaves stains the hands of young workers.
On a steamy July afternoon, Neftali and Yesenia are seated on a teal couch in Melissa Bailey’s double-wide trailer. “Miss Melissa,” as she’s known in these parts, lives in the heart of tobacco country, along a rural stretch outside Kinston, a town of 22,000 in eastern North Carolina. A rooster crows nearby and clouds gather in the distance, promising relief after days of scorching heat. Neftali, about to start her senior year of high school, runs her fingers through bangs she recently dyed red. “It’s hard to explain what it’s like to work in tobacco,” she says, scrunching up her face. “It’s just horrible.” She shows me a photo taken of her in the fields; her hands are black with tar.
“OK, let’s get started,” calls Bailey. At 43, her sparkling eyes and easy laugh don’t quite conceal the stress of a lifetime spent juggling emergencies. She recently lent her van to a homeless family and is now collecting food donations for a migrant family with eight children. Meanwhile, Bailey is struggling to hold together NC Field, a scrappy nonprofit she co-founded in 2010. Young farmworkers face a workplace fatality rate four times that of children in other industries, and Bailey’s goal is to move kids into less dangerous work. It’s a job with long hours and long odds. Many parents depend upon their children working just to get by.
Today, only four kids show up. “It’s really hard to keep things together in the summer,” Bailey tells me. “Everyone’s working tobacco.”
From a “hillbilly mining family” in West Virginia, Bailey moved to North Carolina in 2001 and soon got a job enrolling the children of migrant laborers in school. The hard edges that characterize life for North Carolina’s 90,000 migrant farmworkers felt familiar. Bailey’s grandfather entered the mines at age 12 and died at 32 in 1949 from a methane explosion; her grandmother, who helped raise Bailey, was evicted from company housing after the accident. When Bailey was a toddler, a coal company dam burst, killing several other relatives. Like many of her peers, she got married and had a child right after high school and spent most of her 20s getting by on welfare.
Still, she was surprised to discover that child labor was still legal in the fields; the more she learned about the hazards of tobacco, the less those fields seemed like a place for kids. A 2001 study found that one in four tobacco workers suffers from acute nicotine poisoning, or “green tobacco sickness.” Symptoms range from dizziness and vomiting to difficulty breathing and heart rate fluctuations requiring hospitalization. The pain can be so excruciating that some workers call it the “green monster.” A tobacco farmer in Kentucky said the sickness “can make you feel like you’re going to die,” a phrase I’ll hear others repeat.
These hazards have led countries like Russia and Kazakhstan to ban anyone under 18 from harvesting tobacco. The United States has played a role in such global efforts, recently spending at least $2.75 million to eliminate child tobacco labor in Malawi. But no such prohibition exists here. “Why do we ban cigarettes to minors,” Bailey asks me, “but somehow it’s perfectly OK to have 12-year-olds getting nicotine poisoning in the fields?”
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