It’s a fact many Americans don’t think about when shopping for their dinner table. Children as young as 8 years old may be picking their food.
From Florida to Washington, California to North Carolina, children across the country have been working the fields, harvesting cucumbers, onions, grapes, and even tobacco.
As part of CNBC’s investigation into child labor in agriculture, we went undercover to a tobacco farm in North Carolina and spoke with several kids who worked in the fields. They said even though it’s their choice to work, it’s a choice made out of economic necessity.
“My mother, I knew that she was working since whenever we were really young, but she never exposed us to this kind of work. It wasn’t until afterwards that the need to help my mom and the fact that she was a single mom with four or five kids at the time, so we decided we should help,” explained 20-year-old Yesenia Cuello, who has worked in tobacco fields since she was 12.
Other children we spoke with also told us they work in the fields to help their families make ends meet.
“I am going to save my money, and when I need it, like for an emergency, I am going to use it. Like when somebody pass[es] out from my family. I use it. My grandpa passed out, and I was sad. I like helping my family because they need money,” explained a 12-year-old boy, who just started working in the fields this year.
Cuello said she only works in tobacco now when her Mom is planning to go in the fields alone. She prefers her job at McDonald's .
And that’s the irony. U.S. labor law, under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), allows for children as young as 10 to work in the fields with parental consent and as long as the work is not considered hazardous under the law. However, children are not allowed to work at McDonald’s or in a grocery store until the age of 16.
The FLSA has not been updated since the 1970s and farmworker advocates say the law lacks proper protection for children in certain agriculture work environments.
“What we know about pesticide exposure has changed. There's new technology. And it's time for that list to be updated,” said Zama Coursen-Neff, director of the Children’s Rights Division for Human Rights Watch.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor proposed updates to child labor regulations that would have prohibited youth under 16 from using certain types of machinery, lowered the maximum height for ladders youth could use to pick apples and labeled working in tobacco “hazardous.”
However, those proposed changes were withdrawn in April after overwhelming public comment on the issue. Because America’s agriculture industry has been built on family farms, critics feared the regulations would overreach and eventually ban children from working on their own family farms.
The exact number of child farmworkers is difficult to pinpoint due to the lack of data on child labor and the migratory nature of the work. One advocacy group, the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), which partners with non-profit community programs nationwide, estimates as many as 500,000 children are laboring in U.S. fields. It said poverty is the root cause of the problem.
“Unfortunately what ends up happening is that because these kids that are out there trying to help out their families, they have huge impacts to their health, education and their childhood which ends up perpetuating the cycle of poverty that they are trapped in that their parents were tapped in,” said Norma Flores Lopez, Director of the Children in the Fields Campaign at AFOP.
Lee Wicker, Deputy Director of the North Carolina Growers’ Association (NCGA) and a tobacco farmer, admits there are many factors to consider when it comes to children working in agriculture.
“I grew up right here working on the tobacco farm and I certainly learned my work ethic from growing up on a farm,” he said. “I think we do have to have protections and oversight and transparency but I don’t know any farmers that want to employ 5-year-olds or 6-year-olds or 10-year-olds. Can it happen? Sure. And it can be legal provided they have the documentation, the written consent and record keeping of the birthdate.”
Wicker works with 750 farmers through the NCGA to provide small family farms with regulated migrant labor under the H2A visa program. He said labor issues in agriculture should be part of the public policy debate. (Read More: California Farm Labor Shortage 'Worst It's Been, Ever'.)
But CNBC’s investigation found few are willing to talk about the issue in public. The U.S. Department of Labor declined requests for an interview on the subject and calls to over a dozen produce companies in California were not returned.
The farmer who owns the tobacco field where our undercover investigation found children at work did talk, briefly. He first told CNBC that he has contracts to supply tobacco to Philip Morris International , Alliance One International and U.S. Tobacco Cooperative. However, he abruptly ended the phone call when asked about where he gets his workers.
In agriculture, it’s common to employ a farm labor contractor to supply the labor, which allows the grower to save money on workers’ compensation and other costs because the contractor is then responsible for adhering to labor regulations.
But Philip Morris International, one of the three companies that contracts with the farmer we contacted, sees the situation differently.
“In those situations where farmers do decide to use third party contractors, as far as we’re concerned the responsibility is still with the farmer to make sure that the child labor preventions and the other provisions in our contracts are enforced,” explained Anne Edwards, Director of External Communications for Philip Morris International.
Concerning CNBC’s investigation that exposed child workers, Edwards added, “Clearly this is something that we need to look into as a matter of urgency because this is just completely unacceptable.”
In an emailed response, Alliance One International told CNBC, “We take the situation that you identified very seriously and plan to thoroughly investigate the matter so that if child labor was being used by one of our growers or their third party contractors, an appropriate response, including further education is implemented.”
U.S. Tobacco Cooperative also responded via email, stating, “We condemn strongly any violation of state or federal labor laws.”
Though the system for enforcement is not perfect, NCGA’s Wicker said progress has been made by all responsible parties in the supply chain.
“The companies have stepped up big time, the manufacturers, the leaf dealers, have contracts that growers are required to comply with all federal, state, and local laws,” he said. “The contracts have gotten more specific in detail. I’d say over the last 6 or 7 years there’s explicit language about child labor, forced labor, complying with the law and keeping all the records, and undergoing safety training.”
NCGA also is in a multi-party stakeholder group working for fair labor practices in the agriculture supply chain along with manufacturers, non-governmental organizations, labor unions and government representatives, Wicker added.
“I’m not saying we’re perfect, we want to be perfect, we’re human beings so we’ll probably never be perfect, but we want to partner with the companies and with the workers and their representatives and talk about best practices,” he said.
—By CNBC's Sabrina Korber