Every day except for Sunday, between 5 and 6 a.m., long passenger vans materialize on the rural roads and highways connecting Lenoir, Greene and Wayne counties in eastern North Carolina. The vans, Our Lady of Guadalupe pendants hanging from rearview mirrors, circle through suburban neighborhoods and mobile-home parks, stopping to pick up passengers along the way: men, women and teenagers looking to make quick, flexible money with few questions asked.
Eddie Ramirez has already been up for an hour. A stocky 17-year-old with black slicked-back hair and a mustache, he stands in front of the trailer he shares with his mom and checks his cellphone: 5:22 a.m. Eighteen minutes to go.
It’s dark and most of his neighbors are asleep. Dim lights appear in a couple of bathrooms and kitchens.
“Going to work?” a young female neighbor leaving her trailer calls out to Eddie in Spanish, smiling.
“Yeah,” Eddie responds.
She lets out a quiet laugh, nods and gets in her van.
Eddie started working in the fields when he was 12, like generations of kids who grew up around here. Only, decades ago, they were probably working a small plot of land and working for their families. By contrast, Eddie has no idea whose crops he is tending, or who owns the land. Once in a while, he gets to work with his best friend, Fernando Rodriguez. But Fernando is working sweet potatoes for two more weeks. Instead, Eddie is bringing a friend named Anthony. Everyone calls Anthony “Winky,” a nickname his mother gave him as a baby.
Winky is 16. It’s his first time working in the tobacco fields, and he’s nervous. He has heard about how backbreaking it can be. But after McDonald’s and Bojangles’ turned him down, he figured he’d try it.
“I hope they have water out there,” says Winky.
“They do, man,” says Eddie.
Eddie doesn’t mention he found the work unbearable at first but stuck with it because it was a way to make money without risking getting in trouble with police. Without a green card or U.S. citizenship, he didn’t have many other options. And by now he knows what to expect: intense heat, long rows (each one can take about an hour) and a whole lot of suckers (smaller leaves that shoot out from the stem). The suckers, along with the flower that grows on top of the plant, have to be removed; otherwise they will stunt the growth of the plant and quality of the leaf. Harvesting and curing take place later in the season.
“Are there snakes?” Winky asks.
“Sometimes,” Eddie says, chuckling as Winky buries his face in his hands.
A white van pulls up near Eddie’s trailer. In the driver’s seat is Cesar, Eddie’s crew leader, who hires workers. He doesn’t work directly for the farmer but is part of a chain of farm labor contractors. He rolls down the window, flashing a smile. The boys run to the van with their gloves, hats and plastic-bag lunches and hop in. On the radio, an announcer warns of a heat index of 105 to 109.
Trailing the van is a caravan of vehicles with more workers. Only Cesar knows where the field is. As they fly down country roads, hundreds of acres of tobacco plants, green or bleached and plump in the summer sun, surround them in all directions.
Tobacco has been grown in eastern North Carolina for centuries. And time spent working in the fields is a prized symbol of tradition. Having children as young as 12 spend their summers breaking the flowers off rows of tobacco plants is about as alarming to families here as having a paper route. It is also completely legal under federal child labor laws, which bar kids younger than 14 from most jobs but allows them to work in agriculture without a work permit for an unlimited number of hours, outside school hours, with a parent’s permission. But after the release of a 2014 Human Rights Watch report on the hazards of nicotine poisoning for children and teenagers working in tobacco, what some see as tradition is now a lightning rod for controversy that has pit anti-child-labor advocates against farmers who feel their heritage is under attack.
“When these Human Watch people came out ... they were completely way the hell off-base,” says Kendall Hill, a third-generation tobacco farmer in Kinston. “This state was built on the backs of kids working in tobacco, learning how to work.
“There ain’t nothing hard about anything in tobacco except it’s just hot. But you know where else is hot? The man laying asphalt. The man nailing shingles.”
In response to the report, two associations of tobacco growers, which combined represent more than half of all U.S. growers, adopted policies to ban hiring children under 16 to work in tobacco farming. The parent companies of Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds announced they would not allow farms producing tobacco for them to hire workers under 16. But more than a year later, the outcome has been less than ideal, both advocates and farmers say. Melissa Bailey, co-founder of farmworker advocacy group NC FIELD, has seen kids traveling farther to find work. She calls it the “worst unintended consequence.”
“Telling a really poor family that this isn’t okay is one thing,” Bailey says, referring to the potential hazards of tobacco farming. “Being able to substitute the loss of income is something completely different.”
“The man with the money rules,” Hill says. “The tobacco companies tell this guy over here: ‘If you have any child labor on your farm, you are not going to sell your tobacco to us.’ So is that man going to hire any kids? Hell, no. ... But kids want to work.”
When summer rolls around, Eddie and his friends are outside, waiting in the pre-dawn darkness for a ride they can’t afford to miss.
Like his friends, Fernando started working on tobacco farms when he was 12. He is 15 now but looks younger, which sometimes is a problem. Once while he was on a job, a worker told him to pull his hat down over his face.
“I was like, ‘Why did you tell me to do that?’ He was like, ‘Because of the farmer. If he notices you’re too young or anything he’ll make you go home.’ ”
More than once he has been told to stay home because a farmer was out in the fields surveying workers, but he just waited a few days until the crew moved on to another farm.
Fernando lives a few doors down from Eddie in a small white house with his mom, who also grew up working in the fields. She has a job as an assistant manager at a gas station, but it pays barely enough to cover their bills. So she works in the fields on her days off.
One weekday in July, she has already left for work when Fernando gets up at 5 a.m. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Fernando pulls a washcloth — bright red and thick with frost — out of the freezer to put in his cooler. Later, when he’s working in the midday sun, he’ll wrap it around his head.
In the living room, four small dogs roam around a large green bowl of dog food on the floor next to a pile of laundry. Fernando spreads mayonnaise on some sliced white bread and a piece of baloney. He sits at a table, eating the sandwich as he reads texts from his girlfriend that he can’t respond to. Yesterday he was working on a row of sweet potatoes when a shower of liquid sprayed over from the next field. On his break he discovered pesticides had soaked his pants, damaging the phone’s screen.
Federal regulations require that farmworkers have access to drinking water, toilets and hand-washing stations, and when working around pesticides, protective gear. But not all farmers provide them.
Fernando recalls that the first time he worked in a tobacco field, the pesticides made him itch: “When you break the flowers, the chemicals ... go everywhere. If they get on you, it burns really bad ... makes your skin [feel] like it’s crawling.”
He has also felt queasy after handling tobacco plants, a possible symptom of nicotine poisoning. But he still thinks kids his age should be allowed to work.
“To me it’s kind of messed up,” he says. “You got all these other people coming out here. People my age can do it. I don’t see the problem with it. It’s just more help.”
While working, Fernando listens to music on headphones to make the time go by faster. Someday he wants to leave fieldwork and become a singer, a fact he doesn’t share with kids at school. “I don’t like to tell people right away that I’m in choir,” he says. “They’ll look at me funny.”
Not Eddie, though. When the two met on the bus in middle school, they realized they had a lot in common. Both lived with single moms. Both of their dads had been deported. And they both worked in the fields to help support their families.
In May, when Fernando sang with their school’s varsity choir, Eddie was there. After the performance of spiritual hymns and songs in Gaelic, the audience went crazy, which gave Fernando goose bumps. He was so excited he fist-bumped a guy next to him.
On the drive home, he and Eddie talked about the coming summer. Fernando’s choir had been invited to sing at Carnegie Hall. He said he was relieved they were traveling by bus. He’d never flown before and was scared.
That’s how Ritchie Valens died: in a plane crash with Buddy Holly, Fernando said. “He was a farmworker like us.”
Somewhere near Jacksonville, N.C., Eddie is moving down a row of chest-high plants, assessing one at a time. He uses a latex-gloved hand to break off the fluted white flowers at the top of the stalk. The plants are wet from a late-night rain, and as the bouquet jerks to the right, nicotine-laced water splashes Eddie’s face. He wipes it with his shirtsleeve, but he’s completely drenched. He’s not wearing a black plastic trash bag like the two middle-aged women in the next row. Oh well, he thinks, too late. He moves on to the suckers.
Other teenage boys listen to rap music on their phones as they work. Some light cigarettes and talk about girls, sex and partying. Eddie works faster than the other kids his age and even some who are older. “El gordo sabe,” they joke: The fat one has it down. It’s moments like these when Eddie prefers to concentrate on his paycheck.
Asked if there are minors here, Cesar said no. Several growers interviewed for this story, including one who leases land that Eddie worked on, said they hire only temporary adult workers from Mexico through the Department of Labor’s H-2A visa program. The truth is it’s possible some growers may not know for certain who is in their fields because they are not doing “the necessary due diligence,” says Miguel Coleta, sustainability officer for Philip Morris International, which declined to renew contracts with at least 20 growers in the wake of the Human Rights Watch report. Graham Boyd, executive vice president of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina, says farmers who turn a blind eye are “the exception.”
But the ban on workers under 16 can be hard to enforce because labor practices have changed along with tobacco production in the United States in the past half-century, say farmers and labor advocates. In the 1940s, a sharecropper in North Carolina might have relied on his family to farm 10 or 20 acres. “That’s the only way that we could survive,” Kendall Hill, now 77, says. “Everybody worked.”
Today, by contrast, the scale of production is far larger, and it isn’t uncommon for growers to tend hundreds or thousands of acres. They may not even know exactly where each field is located. Growers don’t always know how many workers they will need at the start of the season. When H-2A workers aren’t enough, locals are hired on a temporary, as-needed basis. They answer signs handwritten in black Sharpie that crew leaders tape to the windows of Mexican tiendas: “Looking for people to de-flower tobacco by the hour. In Dunn NC. Payments weekly. For more information call Luis.”
With the proliferation of contractors and subcontractors, the relationship between a farmer and migrant and seasonal workers looks less like the close ties between relatives and neighbors that Hill remembers and more like the arms-length transaction between the owner of a company and workers in an offshore factory. Often if a crew leader has many workers, he or she will hire a driver to pick them up — a middleman for the middleman, Bailey says. This multi-tiered supply chain worries her.
“The farmer wants to say they’re all H-2A, they’re all temporary workers,” she says. “That’s ridiculous. I mean our schools are full of [kids working in the fields]. You don’t even know if ... [some farm labor contractors are] really contractors. For all you know they’re just some guy that has a connection ... who just says, ‘I’m short 10 workers, can you find 10 more?’ and they’ll find ’em and that’s it.
“If one of these kids gets bit by a snake or passes out from heat exposure, and they call 9-1-1, where are they going to tell the ambulance to go?”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that in 2012, 2,700 youth of the roughly 259,000 hired to work on farms were injured on the job. Those numbers do not include kids like Eddie and Fernando, hired by crew leaders. And they are unlikely to include most cases of green tobacco sickness, or acute nicotine poisoning — which can be a side effect of handling wet tobacco leaves that workers and farmers often refer to as the “green monster” or the “mean green.”
One study by a Wake Forest School of Medicine public health scientist found about 24 percent of adult tobacco farmworkers reported symptoms. Experts say children and adolescents are more vulnerable to the illness because of their smaller size and still-developing bodies.
The potential harm from nicotine poisoning was one reason that in 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division drafted changes to child labor regulations that would have made it illegal for minors under 16 to work on tobacco farms. The rules had not been updated since the 1970s, and the department wanted to bring safety standards for a broad range of agricultural work in line with stricter rules for non-agricultural jobs. The regulations would not apply to children working on farms owned by their parents.
But the following year, Labor officials announced they were shelving the proposal and would not pursue it for the duration of the Obama administration. In a statement, they said the decision was made in response to “thousands of comments” from stakeholders, including members of Congress, who said enforcement of the exemption for family farms would be up to the “whims” of the Labor Secretary.“You’ve got a president of the United States ... from Chicago, ... and you have to think to yourself, do you have any idea what it’s like not just to run an agricultural business in a rural state ... but to raise a family in one?” then-Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) told the Hill newspaper.
The Labor Department’s decision was one factor that inspired Human Rights Watch researchers led by Zama Coursen-Neff to focus on tobacco farming. Their 2014 report, “Tobacco’s Hidden Children,” drew from the testimonies of more than 140 child and adolescent farmworkers in four major tobacco-producing states, including North Carolina and Virginia. Most were poor Latino kids who said they worked in the fields to help their undocumented immigrant parents put food on the table. The majority reported nausea, headaches, vomiting and dizziness after touching wet, green tobacco plants — common symptoms of green tobacco sickness.
The report caught the attention of lawmakers, including Alfonso Lopez, a Democratic Virginia state delegate who represents parts of Arlington and Fairfax counties. In 2015, he introduced a bill to stop the use of labor under 18 on tobacco farms. Some lawmakers and farmers objected bitterly to a New York-based group trying to dictate how they should raise their children. At a tense public meeting on the bill in Richmond, a delegate asked an anti-child-labor advocate who was testifying whether he thought the parents of lawmakers who worked on farms as kids were “stupid.”
Afterward, the bill was tabled and effectively killed. “I was taken aback that there wasn’t more willingness to engage on the subject and a willingness to see both sides of the issue,” says Lopez.
“We’re not saying that the farming parents of yesteryear were evil people,” says Coursen-Neff, looking back. “We’re saying ... looking at what we know now is happening to these kids who work in agriculture, not [to] let poor Hispanic kids do the most dangerous, dirty jobs in America.”
Eddie and Fernando’s neighborhood is a grassy square block of mobile homes and small white houses with porches and chain-link fencing.
Fernando stands with his mom, Jessica Rodriguez, outside a neighbor’s trailer. Her dyed-red hair is pulled back from her face, showing her green eyes and fair skin. Fernando has her features, but his olive complexion is tanner. He looks beat.
“Hi, Miss Diane!” Fernando and Jessica yell out to Winky’s mom as she walks by.
“How you doing, Fernando? How’s work going for you?” she says.
“I see you got a self-made tan on you,” she says, laughing. “Winky tried [working in tobacco] for three or four hours — he quit.”
“ Whaaaat?!” Jessica squeals in disbelief.
Jessica says she started working on a friend’s family farm when she was 11.
“Everybody helped everybody; that’s how it was. You helped your neighbors, you helped your kinfolk, you helped your family,” she says.
Fed up with not understanding what other workers were saying in the tobacco fields, she became bilingual by listening to Mexican music and reading Spanish-language newspapers.
When Fernando’s father was deported to Mexico about nine years ago, she was left to support three children alone and brought each of them to work with her in the fields once they were old enough. Fernando is the only one who keeps going back.
“He wanted name-brand shoes, he wanted name-brand clothes. I thought it was time for him to learn where dollars come from,” she says. “At 12 years old, that’s the only job you can get.
“I mean, what even is child labor? I’ve heard of it, but I don’t know what it is. I was always told that as long as the parents are okay with what they’re doing, then they can do it.”
Eddie says his mom would prefer he do something else for work. But his options are limited because of his immigration status. Memories of his journey from Honduras to the United States are hazy. He was 7. His father had already made the trip and had been working for a year and a half. His mom waded into the choppy current of the Rio Grande holding Eddie, who remembers the water coming up almost to his neck. Soon after the family was reunited in Florida, Eddie’s dad was deported. Eddie and his mom eventually moved to North Carolina, where friends said there were more crops and more harvests, which meant more work. Once he was 10, Eddie says, he started to notice how difficult it was for his mom to make ends meet.
“We didn’t have no clothes, food, we were struggling to pay the bills. ... I said, ‘You know, Mom, one day I’m a get you out of this.’ ... She was like, ‘What are you talking about? Don’t do nothing stupid, Eddie.’ ”
Gang members in his neighborhood saw an opportunity in Eddie. They promised him new shoes and video games, plus the support his overworked mother and absent father couldn’t provide.
“They look for young people, you know, because they start brainwashing you,” he says.
After witnessing several fights, Eddie decided gang life wasn’t for him, and he and his mom moved to a different town to get away from the gang. That’s when Eddie started working in the tobacco fields.
Five years later Eddie says that’s behind him now. He can buy his own school supplies and didn’t have to do anything illegal to get the money.
“I’m used to working now, you know?” he says. “Everything I got here, I worked for it.”
At lunch, in the fields, Eddie sits on an old yellow school bus reconfigured to transport pesticides. He eats a bean-and-egg sandwich he brought from home.
Workers hired through the H-2A visa program are sitting on the other side of the bus. They peer around the tanks of chemicals to tell Eddie and another worker named Junior that there’s soap and water in the back if they want to wash their hands.
“Órale, gracias,” says Eddie.
“It’s starting to burn right here, right here and right here, bro,” Eddie tells Junior, pointing to his cheeks and his forehead. Junior is a 33-year-old originally from Mexico who has been living off and on in the United States his entire life.
He speaks English with no detectable accent. “You got to wear gloves, and if you don’t wear gloves, don’t be rubbing your face or whatever. ... Most places ... they give you like a safety ... whatever you call it, I don’t know what it’s called, but ... here you don’t,” Junior says, laughing.
Eddie points to the field and to the large plastic drums of chemicals on the truck.
“This plus that, that make it twice as dangerous, bro. And the sun, too, bro,” Eddie reminds him. “We can get sick here anytime.”
“I know,” Junior says. He takes a bite of his lunch — chicken wings made by his sister.
Eddie is barely eating. Working in the fields always takes away his appetite. But he forces himself so he’ll have something in his stomach for later.
“Shoot, man, I been doing this since I was 12, bro. I don’t even know how I made it here,” Eddie says.
“Have you ever tried to get you another job?” asks Junior.
“It’s hard, huh?”
“It’s hard, bro. Especially when you don’t got no papers — no papeles.”
“I know that’s right.”
Junior looks at Eddie and sees something of himself in the teenager. Growing up undocumented, it didn’t matter how much he studied. He never had a bank account or was able to build credit and buy a house or a decent car — the building blocks of a good life.
Eddie listens intently but says nothing. He remembers what a school counselor told him once: We’re all immigrants here. You might be where you are right now, and that’s a part of life. But hard work pays off.
At 1 p.m., lunch is over. Time to move to another field. Everyone piles into vehicles. The caravan pulls away. And just like that, there is no trace anyone was ever there. Just tire tracks in the mud and the tobacco plants, pruned the way the farmer wanted.
Alexandra Hall is a freelance journalist in Washington. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
E-mail us at email@example.com.
For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.