Could a 7-year-old have picked the food you’re eating? The law says no. Workers say yes.

Jacqueline Castillo, 19, started picking tobacco in Wayne County at 7. She recently graduated high school and says she doesn’t want to spend her life working in the fields.
Jacqueline Castillo, 19, started picking tobacco in Wayne County at 7. She recently graduated high school and says she doesn’t want to spend her life working in the fields. Courtesy of Jacqueline Castillo

Jacqueline Castillo was 7 when she started picking tobacco in Wayne County, about 55 miles southeast of Raleigh.

Castillo, her mother and four older siblings would wake up around 5:30 a.m., pack a lunch and wait for a van to pick them up and take them to the fields.

With a permanently dislocated left arm, Castillo struggled to pluck the white flowers off the top of the leafy green plants. She often experienced splitting headaches, nausea and dizziness – common symptoms of green tobacco sickness, a type of nicotine poisoning farm workers call “the green monster.” It occurs when nicotine is absorbed through the skin.

Despite the plastic trash bags she wore over her clothes for protection, Castillo felt sick nearly every day.

But she and dozens of other workers would labor until sunset, exhausted and drenched in sweat. Back at home, they would shower and scrub their clothes to wash away the chemicals from nicotine and pesticides.

They worked 40 to 60 hours a week harvesting tobacco from May to October. Then it was sweet potato season.

“This is not what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Castillo, now 19, said. “I do not want to depend on a job like this to survive.”

Every year, North Carolina relies on roughly 80,000 farmworkers to harvest tobacco, sweet potatoes, Christmas trees, fruit, cucumbers and vegetables. They also work on hog and poultry farms and in factories, greenhouses and nurseries. Some advocacy groups put that number closer to 150,000.

These workers, mostly Latino migrants and immigrants, make up an invisible workforce that puts food on dinner tables and props up the state’s economy. Agriculture contributes $84 billion annually to North Carolina’s economy and comprises more than 17 percent of the state’s income, according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture.

They receive little pay, and the work is hot, thankless and sometimes dangerous and unsanitary. The government and some tobacco companies have made improvements, but some say little change has trickled down.

You can barely spot us, because we’re really small and short. There’s still a lot of 7-, 12-, 13-year-olds working. I don’t think it’s ever going to change.

Jacqueline Castillo, 19

Some of these immigrant workers are children, although no one knows for sure how many.

Most industries won’t hire workers under 14 and establish specific time restrictions for youth, but under federal labor laws children 12 and older can work in agriculture without a work permit for an unlimited number of hours outside of school with permission from a parent.

If their parent is employed on a farm or gives them permission, kids under 12 can work in nonhazardous jobs on farms exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act minimum wage. Children aged 10 or 11 can work in short-season crops under specific waivers granted by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Employers who violate child labor laws could be forced to pay up to $10,000 to the U.S. Department of Labor for each underage employee. But not all farmers follow the rules and may never be caught, depending on whether their farm is inspected and oftentimes whether their fields are visible to drivers.

“You can barely spot us, because we’re really small and short,” Castillo said. “There’s still a lot of 7-, 12-, 13-year-olds working. I don’t think it’s ever going to change.”

In 2014, Human Rights Watch published a report on the hazards of nicotine poisoning for young tobacco workers. The group interviewed 141 children between the ages of 7 to 17 in four prominent tobacco-producing states, including North Carolina. Nearly 75 percent reported experiencing nausea, vomiting, headaches, skin rashes and other symptoms, many of them consistent with acute nicotine poisoning.

As a result, some tobacco companies changed their guidelines. Altria Group and Reynolds American adopted policies banning their growers from hiring children under 16, and two of the largest U.S. tobacco growers’ associations implemented similar initiatives. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency changed its worker protection standards to require annual pesticide training and forbid people under 18 from applying pesticides.

But despite the adjustments, advocacy groups and farmworkers say few changes have trickled down and underage children are still working. Anti-child labor organizations say that working in agriculture poses health and safety risks for children, but many farmers grew up working on their parents’ farmers and argue that farming ingrains the value of hard work from an early age.

“Thousands of people grew up working on farms. My children did it,” said Larry Wooten, president of the N.C. Farm Bureau. “Farm work is hard, it’s hot, it’s nasty and it’s outside. They (immigrant workers) come here knowing that it is work.”

More harmful to kids

Some public health experts say conditions in the fields could be more harmful to children because their brains and bodies are still developing.

Dr. Thomas Arcury, a professor at the Wake Forest School of Medicine who studies migrant farmworkers, said nicotine poisoning, dehydration, extreme heat and operating risky machinery could be especially dangerous for children.

“Kids are not small adults, kids are kids,” he said. “They have more surface-to-volume ratio, their metabolism is faster, their bodies are still developing ... It’s earlier in their life, so they have more years to experience any long-term outcomes.”

Thousands of people grew up working on farms. My children did it. Farm work is hard, it’s hot, it’s nasty and it’s outside. They come here knowing that it is work.

Larry Wooten, president of the N.C. Farm Bureau

A study by Arcury and other researchers found that for every 100 farmworkers, on any given day two of them were too sick from nicotine poisoning to work.

“I don’t find that acceptable that we have an occupational illness that results in that level of sickness in the workforce,” Arcury said. “You shouldn’t have to get sick in order to make a living.”

Many children work in agriculture to help their parents financially and some parents can’t afford child care. Only 55 percent of youth farmworkers in the U.S. graduate from high school, according to Human Rights Watch.

Since she was 11, Araceli Jaimes has worked in agriculture to help her parents pay bills. Both of her older siblings dropped out of high school to help make ends meet. Jaimes, a high school sophomore, is determined to become the first member of her family to graduate.

“I don’t want to drop out. I want something better,” Jaimes, 16, said. “My parents want something big for me. They’re like, ‘Don’t be like us. Finish your school, go to your college, that’s what I really want for you. I want a better future for you.’ 

She dreams of studying nursing in college, buying a house and earning enough money to support her parents so they won’t have to work in the fields. But it’s hard not to feel bitter when she hears her classmates talk about their plans, summer vacations or new cars.

“We see other kids and they don’t work out there, and we’re over here working our butts off to help my parents and to have money at least for our food,” she said.

Yessy Bustos spent her childhood traveling each year from Texas to Arkansas with her parents to pick cotton and blueberries. Bustos, who was born in the U.S., was able to graduate from high school and then college in Texas. Three years ago, she moved to Kinston and is now executive director of NC Field, an organization that advocates for youth farm workers.

Bustos said many youth can’t afford not to work in the fields because in rural areas there are few job opportunities.

“That’s the only thing they have, agriculture,” she said.

Last year she launched a pilot internship at NC Field and hired a teenage farm worker to help organize events for the group. Bustos plans to expand the program and hire more youth, and said she’d like to see companies and farmers provide other avenues for youth employment, such as internship programs.

Workers hired through the H-2A program, which allows foreign citizens to fill seasonal jobs in agriculture temporarily, are paid $11.27 an hour and receive free housing and transportation. Other farm laborers are paid the federal and state minimum wage of $7.25, though there are some wage exceptions for small farms.

Agriculture workers are exempt from overtime pay. Nearly half of farmworkers in the U.S. earned less than $30,000 in 2013-14, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. About 30 percent had combined family incomes below the poverty line.

Groups like the Farm Labor Organizing Committee are trying to change the agriculture industry starting with tobacco companies, not politicians. If farmers are paid more by companies, they will have more money to pay their workers and fewer youth will need to support their parents, said communications manager Catherine Crowe.

“Child labor is an issue not because of lack of legislation, but more because of poverty wages being paid to their parents,” Crowe said. “If you pay poverty wages, kids are going to have to work to make up for that loss of income in the family.”

Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler

Abuses and safety risks

Wage theft, housing violations and sexual harassment are issues that some farmworkers face, but many never report the transgressions because they’re worried about retaliation from contractors or growers.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee files between 500 and 800 complaints with the North Carolina Growers Association, the biggest employer of H-2A workers in the United States, every year.

Living conditions are also an issue. A 2012 study of 183 migrant worker camps in North Carolina found violations including roach, mice and rat infestations, non-working toilets and showers, polluted drinking water and lack of proper fire safety equipment.

Employers are required to register housing they plan to use for migrant farmworkers with the N.C. Department of Labor, which then inspects it before occupancy each year. But the department has no means of tracking the camps, said spokesperson Dolores Quesenberry in an email. Every year the department usually finds occupied camps that weren’t registered.

Last year, the department conducted 1,731 pre-occupancy inspections and 98 compliance inspections and issued 144 violations totaling more than $144,000 in penalties.

Agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries in the United States because workers are often operating machinery and lifting heavy loads. Seven percent of fatal injuries in North Carolina occurred in crop production in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But some laborers fear losing their jobs if their boss finds out they’re injured. Victoriano Rodriguez, 53, who is working in North Carolina on an H-2A visa, says he has pain in his waist, back and legs, but he hides it from his grower because he fears he won’t be hired again.

“Sometimes co-workers will hurt themselves and not tell anyone that they’re hurt,” Rodriguez said.

Two years ago Rafael Ponce’s left hand got stuck in a machine that lays plastic over strawberry fields. When Ponce, 68, recalled how he screamed at the other farmworkers to make the machine stop, tears began streaming down his face. A two-inch scar on his wrist serves as a daily reminder of the accident.

One of his co-workers later fell off the machine and died. Ponce ran to get help, but it was too late. He hasn’t returned to working in the fields since then and has been doing odd jobs around Warsaw, a town in Duplin County, to make money.

“Sometimes I feel like my heart wants to leave or go out,” he said through a translator. “It’s really dangerous to be here.”