Dangers Abound for Children Working in Tennessee’s Tobacco Fields

The dangers are many for the children who are doing farm labor in tobacco fields in several southeastern states. Photo credit: Mangrove Mike/Flickr.

The dangers are many for the children who are doing farm labor in tobacco fields in several southeastern states. Photo credit: Mangrove Mike/Flickr.

Children half the smoking age are reportedly laboring in tobacco fields in Tennessee and they’re being exposed to a multitude of perils. New research shows one in 10 working in the region’s tobacco fields are younger than 18, often using dangerous tools and machinery and facing hazards including serious injuries and falls.
The kids also are at risk for green tobacco sickness from overexposure to nicotine, says Baldemar Velasquez, president AFL-CIO’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee.
“When you try to eat, nothing tastes right,” Velasquez says. “Workers say they try to drink milk. It’s the only thing you can consume when you get really, really sick.”
The major tobacco companies all have policies against child labor, but a federal loophole intended for farm families leaves the practice in a legal gray area. Most growers insist they obey the law, to the best of their ability.
Velasquez worked in tobacco as a teen in fact, he started fieldwork with his family at the age of six, saying “it was either that or not eating.” He also notes families are often undocumented, putting them at the mercy of their employers.
“Doesn’t matter to the crew leader, the labor contractor, because he gets the money from the harvest,” says Velasquez. “He doesn’t care how small the hands are putting the cut tobacco on the trailer, as long as the acres get done.”
Ninety percent of tobacco grown in the U.S. is cultivated in four states: North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.