Today the Human Rights Watch released a report entitled “Tobacco’s Hidden Children”. The report makes note that greater than 90% of US tobacco production occurs in four primary states which includes North Carolina. It makes allegations that the presence of children working on farms is wide spread and a prolific problem. While the United States labor laws permit children to be engaged in certain agricultural work endeavors, the report is careful to point out that its findings are not an illegal problem in America.
The HRW report suggests that child labor is an acceptable practice, and that it goes largely “unchecked”. The Tobacco Growers Association of NC (TGANC) takes issue with such distortions of facts. In the United States, enforcement of child labor laws is the jurisdiction of both the US Department of Labor as well as the State Departments of Labor. It is also known that any worker may anonymously report concerns or violations to these resource agencies. Further, the departments of labor are required to make random and unannounced inspection visits to farms in order to assure compliance of all related laws and regulations. Data reports that the US Department of Labor only recorded one incident of child labor violations in NC in the crop season for 2012.
It is widely understood that agriculture can be a labor intensive vocation and is known to embody long hours of work needs during peak periods given its often perishable condition of certain crops being harvested. Federal agencies rank agriculture as the second most hazardous occupation in America behind mining. These are not new facts to emphasize in the HRW report. These conditions are also well understood by any person who chooses to become engaged in farming either as an owner/operator or employee of a farm.
It is incumbent upon farmers who employ workers to understand labor laws and to work diligently to obey these requirements. It is the opinion of the Tobacco Growers Association of NC that the great majority of the farmers in the state place tremendous value and appreciation on the workforce that is willing to help them harvest crops. Most farmers go beyond what is required of them in terms of labor compliance.
Protecting and providing support for workers is an important aspect in maintaining a stable and quality workforce. Farmers understand that mistreatment of workers or violations of labor laws is the quickest way to create a situation of insufficient workers to harvest a crop in a timely and quality fashion. Every farmer in NC will tell you that their employees are among the greatest asset in the success of the family farming operation. There is absolutely zero benefit in mistreating farm workers.
TGANC condemns any mistreatment or misuse of workers. The fact that HRW points to 141 incidents of children working in a farm environment should be considered as isolated and rare occurrences in the United States and most certainly in North Carolina. The findings in this report should be viewed in this country as the exception rather than the norm. Additionally, it is unfortunate that the report chose to only focus on the crop of tobacco when there are dozens of other commodities that depend on hand harvest labor. It brings to question either a hidden agenda or some other adverse motivation that is anti-tobacco.
Our state produces approximately 400 million pounds of flue-cure tobacco in a season on 180,000 acres of land. It is estimated that the approximate number of farms in the state is 1,600 to 2,000. On average these farms may employ an average of 15-20 workers at peak periods. This calculation would equate to roughly 30,000 employees. Most of these workers will be seasonal and a high percentage will be classified as “guest workers”. If all 141 incidents in the HRW report had occurred in NC alone, that would be a ratio of .004 percent of the workers. Could the statement be made that 99.006 % are doing it correctly? And, again the USDOL only reported one incident of child labor in 2012 in NC.
Great strides have been achieved in the US tobacco industry over the past four decades to drastically reduce the amount of labor required to grow and harvest a crop of tobacco. In a 1965 NC State University report by the agricultural economics department it recorded that the crop required 600 man hours per acre grown and delivered and average yield of 1,600 pounds. In 2013 that statistic is 50-75 man hours per acre and the yield average is above 2,300 pounds. Fifty percent of the tobacco in NC is in fact, machine harvested. All modern operations use bulk curing barns and 100% of farm tobacco is packaged by automatic bailing machines in preparation for sale. Many farms use mechanized “topping” devices and precision sucker control products that have helped to reduce that labor demand by 50% as well. All of this mechanization is important in reducing the workers exposure to raw leaf tobacco.
Further, the advent of larger curing box systems and the attention to reduce leaf damage from excessive moisture in the curing process has resulted in many operators not starting field harvest when tobacco leaves are wet. This practice has also helped reduce any potential risks to “green tobacco sickness” that can result from handling wet leaves.
We see two important points coming from the HRW report. First, it is additional evidence that guest worker polices in this country need to be further addressed and improved in the ongoing immigration debate. Second, as an industry we will continue to prioritize the need to completely remove hand labor as a requirement in this crop so that its cultural practice can be similar to that of basic row crops such as corn, soybean and cotton. It remains the goal of TGANC to lead the technology discoveries that may someday result in tobacco that is not touched by human hands.
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Executive Vice President