(CNN) – Jessica Rodriguez was 11 years old when she first stepped onto a tobacco field in Snow Hill, North Carolina. She spent the next five summers working on a neighbor’s tobacco farm, usually six days a week.
“It was hard. It was definitely hard,” she remembers. “We had a good boss lady — she bought us lunch every day. But remember, you’re sitting there eating lunch with tobacco gum all over your hands.”
Rodriguez had a lot to do, including hand-pulling tobacco and panning it with a harvester. She and the other children on the farm worked from 6 or 7 in the morning to 7 or 8 at night.
“I got heat exhaustion — vomiting, feel like my stomach was trying to come out of my body,” she said. “They would bring me water and saltine crackers to settle my stomach until I got better and then back to work.”
It may not have been easy, she says, but the pay was was good. She earned anywhere from $100 to $150 a day; the money was given directly to her parents.
Rodriguez’s story has played out time and again on tobacco fields across the country for decades. A report published this week from Human Rights Watch details the dangers child workers face on America’s tobacco farms.
Called “Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in US Tobacco Farming,” the report documents conditions on farms in North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia. Ninety percent of all tobacco grown in this country comes from those four states.
The researchers interviewed 141 child tobacco workers between the ages of 7 and 17 for the report. Nearly 75% reported a range of devastating symptoms, including vomiting, nausea, headache, dizziness, skin rashes and burning eyes.
Many of the symptoms are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, said Margaret Wurth, a children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. It’s often called green tobacco sickness, or GTS.
GTS can happen when nicotine is absorbed through skin while handling tobacco plants.
“About half the kids we interviewed said they saw tractors come through fields where they were working, or nearby fields, spraying pesticides,” Wurth said. “And the children said they could smell and taste and feel the chemical spray as it drifted toward them.”
And nicotine is not the only danger. There were more than 1,800 non-fatal injuries to kids under 18 that worked on farms in 2012, according to the Human Rights Watch report. Two-thirds of the children who died from occupational injuries that year were agricultural workers.
“We found that kids are working 10 or 12, sometimes 14-hour days in extreme heat,” Wurth said. “They often have no place to go to the bathroom, no place to wash their hands at work and many of them are given no safety training, no health education and no protective equipment.”
The researchers found kids using sharp tools, such as axes or machetes, to dig up weeds and/or harvest tobacco. Some kids worked near dangerous machinery. Others climbed up into the rafters of barns, more than one story off the ground, to hang tobacco to dry without any kind of safety gear.
The Human Rights Watch estimates several hundred thousand kids work in agriculture in the United States each year, but there are no hard numbers on just how many are working on tobacco farms, and no number to adequately portray the scope of the problem. Most, Wurth says, are the children of Hispanic immigrants.
U.S. labor laws, she says, do not protect these kids.
According to the report:
— Children as young as 12 can work unlimited hours on any size farm as long as they have a parent’s permission.
— Children of any age can work in any job on a farm owned by their parents.
— There is no minimum age for children to work on small farms.
— At 16, children working on farms can do jobs considered hazardous by the Department of Labor. Children working outside agriculture must be at least 18 to do hazardous work.
The Federal Youth Employment Laws in Farm Jobs, while setting standards for youth employment in agriculture, does not specifically address tobacco farms. But the Department of Labor released a statement addressing the Human Rights Watch report:
“Our job at the Department of Labor is to ensure that agricultural employers keep their workers, regardless of age, safe on the job, housed in safe and sanitary residential facilities, and pay them their legally-required wages,” the government agency said. “The Department especially takes seriously its role in ensuring that employers operate in compliance with all appropriate laws and rules with respect to young workers.”
Several “young workers” who spoke to CNN said a tobacco farm is not an appropriate place for a child.
Mildre Lima, now 19, started working in the tobacco fields when she was 12. She came to Saratoga, North Carolina, from Florida with her parents, three brothers and her grandmother. They all harvested tobacco, receiving $7.25 an hour.
It wasn’t long before Lima started getting sick. Rashes turned her skin a dark color and caused it to peel off in patches.
But that was just the beginning. The adults she worked with were mean to her, she says, and when she was 14 she was sexually harassed.
“When (my mom) confronted the supervisor he fired us. He fired my mom, me and my grandmother.”
When she looks back on those years, Lima says no child should ever have to go through what she did. Her dad still works the tobacco fields, but last year was Lima’s last. She is done.
For most of these kids, the money — the ability to help their families financially — is the draw.
Erick Garcia, 17, is one. He was 11 when he started harvesting tobacco in Kinston, North Carolina, with his parents and two older siblings. The teen says he worked from 7 a.m. to sundown with no breaks besides a lunch hour.
Though he doesn’t want to, Garcia plans to work the tobacco fields again this summer. “When you are surrounded by plants that are taller than you, you feel like you are suffocating,” he says. But there are “no other options to do another job, a better job, that is not dangerous and hard.”
Jessica Rodriguez returned to the fields last summer when her other company cut her hours, and she was three to four months behind on every bill.
Her sons Brandon, 15, and Fernando, 13, spent the summer in the tobacco fields for the first time alongside her. Both boys have medical issues: Brandon has asthma and ADHD; Fernando has a tumor on the bottom of his brain stem. Rodriguez is worried about their well-being in the fields.
Still, her boys want the financial freedom of having their own money. Rodriguez herself is back to working full time elsewhere, and says she’ll work with her sons in the fields this summer on her days off.
But if Human Rights Watch has any say in the matter, children will not be allowed on tobacco farms at all.
“We’ve concluded that any tasks where kids come into direct contact with tobacco plants or dried tobacco leaves pose hazards to their health,” Wurth said. “We want companies to make clear that kids cannot work in jobs where they are exposed to these dangers and then to communicate this to the growers and their supply chains to make sure the growers know these rules and follow them.”
Human Rights Watch shared its report with 10 companies that buy tobacco grown in the United States.
“Nine of the 10 companies responded and all are concerned about child labor, but none of them have policies that specifically protect children from the hazards we identified in our research,” Wurth said.
Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for Altria Group, one of the largest tobacco companies in the country, told CNN the company doesn’t employ its own farmers, and has strict standards for contractors it buys tobacco from. Altria Group is the parent of Philip Morris USA, which makes about half of all cigarettes sold in the United States.
“Our tobacco companies do not condone the unlawful employment or exploitation of farm workers, especially those under the age of 18,” Caldwell said. He said U.S. tobacco companies will work together on the issues outlined in the report.
To Wurth, the solution is more complicated.
“We can’t let this be the only option for these families,” she said. “We can’t say these families are living in poverty, therefore it’s OK … We have to make sure that there are better opportunities for these kids, and that they’re not forced to do this kind of work that makes them sick.”