A recent report from the advocacy group Lawyers For Good Government points to Kentucky as having some of the worst regulations for children and farm work in the country. The state doesn’t have minimum age requirements for the industry, restrictions against night work or limits on long or consecutive days worked for children in agriculture. 

Farming is one of the most dangerous jobs in America, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The agriculture industry is also the only one exempt from federal child labor restrictions. 

Adam Fernandez is Lawyers for Good Government’s vice president of policy and co-author of the report. He said one barrier to achieving equitable change is reluctance to pay workers more. 

 “Farm workers are some of the most exploited laborers in this country. And when it comes to child farm workers, you can get by paying children less,” Fernandez said. “Cheap labor is something that the industry uses and it takes concerted action in order to try to fix it.”

Young farmers face risk of injury, illness and possibly death from being exposed to hazardous work conditions, like hours of exposure to heat, chemicals and dangerous machinery. 

Nine out of ten farmworkers are people of color, according to the report. Fernandez said the American agriculture industry has a long history of exploiting young people of color, dating back to slavery. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, restricting child labor in all but one industry: agriculture. That led Black children into sharecropping during the Jim Crow era.

“The issue was particularly wanting to protect not just children, but trying to decide which children could be exploited and which children couldn’t,” Fernandez said.

Kentucky is one of 17 states where child labor laws don’t apply to farm work. Others nearby include Tennessee and North Carolina. The three states cultivated more than 80% of the country’s tobacco over the last couple of years. 

“Tobacco is a toxic crop that, if handled, nicotine can be absorbed directly into the skin. And so you have kids who are handling tobacco and absorbing adult amounts of nicotine,” Fernandez said. “There are some states that protect child farmworkers from handling tobacco.”

In 2014, Human Rights Watch did a study about child tobacco farming in America. As part of the work, researchers interviewed youth ages seven to 17 — the majority of whom reported side effects after working in the fields and handling dried tobacco leaves. Their symptoms included nausea, difficulty breathing and headaches. 

While the work is completely legal, advocates say the country’s loose regulations and policies surrounding tobacco farming leave young farmers vulnerable to abysmal work conditions and severe health risks. HRW released a 2015 report detailing these dangers and offering recommendations to the U.S. government and tobacco associations on how to mitigate these risks. 

Fernandez said equitable change won’t come unless lawmakers pass tougher child labor regulations. There’s been an ongoing federal effort to better regulate child labor since 2009. Fernandez said it hasn’t gotten much traction, but added that state lawmakers could propose restrictions if they had the political will to do so.

Yasmine Jumaa is WFPL’s race and equity reporter.