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Child Labor in America's Tobacco Fields

PHOTO: According to the Human Rights Watch, children even younger than the 15-year-old seen here are working in American's tobacco fields. Photo by Marcus Bleasdale for Human Rights Watch.
PHOTO: According to the Human Rights Watch, children even younger than the 15-year-old seen here are working in American's tobacco fields. Photo by Marcus Bleasdale for Human Rights Watch.
November 3, 2014

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Children half the smoking age for Pennsylvania are actually laboring in America's tobacco fields, according to new reports. It's hard to tell how many or how old they are. But an Oxfam America/Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) study found many workers in North Carolina tobacco fields are younger than 18. FLOC's president and founder Baldemar Velasquez says families put their children to work to get by. He says their interviews found kids typically start in their early teens, but sometimes much younger.

"Seven, eight on up," says Velasquez. "We've seen kids this summer that were 13 and 15 and they'd tell us they were working in tobacco seven years, five years."

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.

Velasquez says he worked in tobacco as a teen; in fact low wages meant he started working in other crops with the rest of his family when he was six. As he puts it "it was either that or not eating." Velasquez says the families, often here illegally, are at the mercy of labor contractors. He says economic pressures mean farm owners and cigarette companies look the other way when crew leaders break the law.

"Doesn't matter to the crew leader, the labor contractor, because he gets the money from the harvest," Velasquez says. "He doesn't care how small the hands are putting cut tobacco on the trailer, as long as the acres get done."

According to a separate report from Human Rights Watch, about half of all tobacco farm laborers make less than minimum wage. It found 12-hour days are common, and 16-hour days not unusual. Off the farms this country eliminated most child labor decades ago.

"These are symptoms of a broader labor problem," he says. "We used to have children in the mines of America, textile mills of America. When unions were formed they negotiated away those conditions."

Velasquez says the fights unions won in the mines of Pennsylvania a century ago still have to be fought in the tobacco fields.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - PA