Governor Pat McCrory issued an official proclamation declaring Sept. 16–20 Farm Safety and Health Week.
Agriculture and agribusiness combined are a top industry in North Carolina, providing more than $77 billion in revenue with $14.9 billion directly coming from farm production, according to the governor’s statement.
The governor’s proclamation came at the urging of the Agromedicine Institute. The institute is a partly state-funded, nonprofit research facility at East Carolina University that works in conjunction with North Carolina State University and North Carolina Agriculture and Tech University.
According to Robin Tutor, the institute’s director, North Carolina’s average fatality rate in the agriculture industry is 7.5 times greater than the average fatality rate in any other industry. (Agriculture includes farming, fishing and forestry.)
“North Carolina has not had such a proclamation in the past,” she says, citing the Midwest as creating National Farm Safety and Health Week. “This is such an important issue in our state. We need to raise awareness not just with our officials, but also with the public.”
Farmworker groups, representing migrant and American labor, welcomed the proclamation with caution.
NC Field, a farmworker advocacy organization based in Kinston, N.C., is represented on the Agromedicine Institute’s board. The group released a statement Wednesday in response to the governor’s proclamation. It highlights a labor force excluded from the proclamation: children.
Melissa Bailey, former director of NC Field, says she sees families in Lenoir County “so poor that they can’t pay rent and utilities without a twelve-year-old’s help in the second most dangerous job in the U.S.”
NC Field’s statistics show that in 2013, more than 100 children within a 60-mile radius of Kinston were actively employed tobacco workers. Their ages ranged from 10 to 18.
“Most were employed by labor contractors and many worked unlimited hours and days legally due to the federal agricultural exemption for child labor,” the group’s statement said.
North Carolina leads the nation in tobacco production. The crop puts younger laborers at greater risk of falling ill.
Twenty-one-year-old Yesenia Cuello, a U.S. citizen, worked the fields every summer as a teenager to help her single mother care for herself and her younger siblings. She mostly worked in tobacco, with the occasional work in sweet potato fields, where she saw a child as young as 9 years old working with the adults.
“No child should be exposed to those conditions,” she says.
She developed frequent susceptibility to heat stroke working long hours in the summer. Her younger sisters, she says, would vomit almost every day after work.
Nicotine absorbed through the skin in a day’s work is equivalent to smoking 36 cigarettes, says the NC Field statement. Green tobacco sickness is a common ailment with tobacco workers, and is often fatal.
Cuello now serves as president of NC Field’s Poder Juvenil Campesino (Rural Youth Power), a group of youth farmworkers pushing for change in child labor policy. She is also studying to be a nurse.
After a story about child labor ran in the INDY in 2012, the Department of Labor agreed to meet with NC Field and other farmworker advocacy groups. However, there hasn’t been a shift in policy or acknowledgement of child labor issues. The Governor’s recent statement also excluded any mention.
“Even as state and federal agencies fund ‘adolescent tobacco prevention’ curriculums and we require a minimum age of eighteen to purchase tobacco products, rural children continue to be at risk in working environments that are unethical and dangerous,” says NC Field’s statement.
“People should know who harvests their food and their tobacco,” Cuello says. “I worry about my mother’s health, and about the children working in the fields to help support their families. That’s just wrong to me. I wish the state government would take more initiative in making some changes, especially about kids working in the fields.”