The Labor Trafficking of Children Through America’s Agricultural Sector

June 14, 2021 Criminal Defense

A Brief Background on Forced Labor

Forced labor fueled by labor trafficking affects millions of men, women and children globally, and such work is present in the agricultural, manufacturing, and mining/quarrying sectors of the United States, as well the sex industry. However, America’s highly underregulated agricultural industry differs because unlike other industries that center around goods produced by labor abuse overseas, labor trafficking in the agricultural sector occurs both domestically and internationally.[1] Although it’s hard to wrap our minds around the idea that such atrocities are happening on American soil, nearly 530,000 laborers are forced to work in the agricultural sector in Europe and the United States.[2]

These labor abuses within the agricultural sector of the United States primarily inflict the nation’s migrant and seasonal farmworkers, including “men, women, families or children as young as five or six years old who harvest crops and raise animals in fields, packing plants, orchards and nurseries.”[3] These workers may be legal citizens, undocumented immigrants, permanent legal residents, or foreign nationals with H-2A work visas.[4] The work these individuals do becomes trafficking when force, fraud or coercion is used to control the worker, and those in charge on these farms are often using physical force to hold farmworkers in lives centered around servitude in order to pay off a debt.[5]

Child Labor Within the Agricultural Sector

The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs based on figures gathered by the Department of labor estimates that “there are approximately 500,000 child farm workers in the United States”, with some starting as young as eight years old.[6] One prominent example of this are the children forced to work sunup to sundown in America’s tobacco fields, often for 50-60 hours a week in the extreme heat while operating dangerous tools and machinery.[7] These fields are primarily located in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, where “ninety percent of tobacco grown in the United States is cultivated.”[8] According to a Human Rights Watch Study between May and October 2013, out of 141 child tobacco workers aged seven to seventeen who worked in tobacco fields in these states, three quarters experienced a “sudden onset of serious symptoms-including nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness, skin rashes, difficulty breathing, and irritation to their eyes and mouths,” all of which are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning.[9] The pesticides used on the farms also pose a significant danger to children and adult workers alike, specifically chlorpyrifos, a pesticide used on a variety of food crops that is linked to “cancer, Parkinson’s disease and other serious health problems.”[10] In 2019, the Trump administration struck down a 2015 proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban the dangerous chemical, leading states to pass laws themselves banning the pesticide.[11] As a result of constant pesticide exposure, the EPA has found that “children are three times more susceptible to pesticides’ carcinogenic effects than are adults.”[12]

Whether it be the tobacco fields in America or other labor sectors overseas, the reason children become targets of forced labor has the same root —endemic poverty. Farmers who are in charge of managing the workers are financially exploited by the labor contractors that help corporations and their complex supply chains thrive.[13] As a result of farmers making little to no money from the multi-level corporate supply chains they do business with, they are forced to hire a cheap, easily controlled workforce that can keep their supply chains going to complete harvest times.[14]

What about child labor laws? Unfortunately, children are subjected to such dangers because of a loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which allows children as young as twelve, sometimes younger, to be hired for unlimited hours on American farms with parental consent or on a farm where the parent is employed. Without this consent, the minimum age at which a minor can work on a farm outside of school hours is fourteen years old, while the minimum age at which a minor may work on a farm during school hours is sixteen.[15] Outside of the agricultural sector, the FLSA prohibits children under fourteen from working, “restricts hours to no more than three on a school day until sixteen and prohibits hazardous work until eighteen for most industries.”[16] Although “100,000 child farmworkers are injured on the job every year and children account for twenty percent of farming fatalities,” Congress has made little effort to implement any regulations to bring this abuse to a halt.[17]

Solutions to Child Trafficking

Solutions to these problems lie in the hands of many actors within the United States, including Congress, tobacco manufacturing and leaf supply companies, and consumers of tobacco products.[18] Congress must change the FLSA and provide children working in the agricultural sector the same labor protections as it does to children working in other sectors. In addition, the EPA must recognize the serious public health risks posed by pesticides like chlorpyrifos and pass regulations that comply with the Food Quality Protection Act, which “requires the agency to demonstrate that there is a reasonable certainty the pesticide will not cause harm.”[19] If the EPA does not implement such protections, states must follow in the footsteps of Hawaii and California to pass laws that ban the pesticide.[20] Most importantly, Americans must demand change. In the United States, it’s illegal for children under eighteen to buy tobacco products, yet we allow children to be trafficked and forced into labor making such products. This occurs because of ignorance in who makes the goods we so conveniently consume, but also because we put cheap, convenient goods on a pedestal no matter the suffering they took to make. Tobacco products are no exception, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Americans must refuse to support tobacco products so long as they are produced by children who are exposed to life threatening chemicals. Doing so would result in the prices of tobacco skyrocketing because of the upheaval of the cheap child-filled workforce. However, that is a small price to pay to save children from such abuse.

This article was written by Sarah Kamide

Sarah Pumphrey Law Firm







[1] Invisible Hands (Charles Ferguson Nov. 23, 2018).

[2] Elizabeth Grossman, Did Slaves Produce your Food?, Civil Eats (Oct. 25, 2016), /10/25/ did-slaves-produce-your-food-forced-labor/.

[3] Agriculture, National Human Trafficking Hotline, (last visited Apr. 20, 2021).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Child Labor in the United States, American Federation of Teachers (2021),

[7] Ariel Ramchandani, The Overlooked Children Working in America’s Tobacco Fields, The Atlantic (June 21, 2018),

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11]Cara Schulte, Trump Administration Refuses to Ban Neurotoxic Pesticide, Human Rights Watch (July 22, 2019 5:35 PM),

[12] Child Labor in the United States, supra.

[13] Invisible Hands, supra.

[14] Melinda Sampson, The Dark Side of Agriculture: Labor Trafficking in the Fields, North Carolina Stop Human Trafficking (Feb 11, 2020),

[15] Federal Child Labor in Agriculture and Farming, (2021),

[16] Child Labor in the United States, supra.

[17] Id.

[18] Margaret Wurth, supra.

[19] Cara Schulte, supra.

[20] Id.

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