Labor Exploitation


Children as young as 12 years old are legally allowed to labor as farmworkers picking tobacco, which exposes them to toxic tar and other health risks. (Photo by Yesenia Cuello, a youth farmworker in North Carolina.)

Convict leasing and sharecropping exploited Black workers in the South for generations after emancipation. In other regions during the 19th century, most low-paid, physically demanding agricultural and industrial work relied on the exploitation of non-white immigrants. Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican workers built railroads and harvested crops for low pay in dangerous and abusive conditions. In the mid-20th century, the federal government’s exploitative “bracero program” authorized temporary entry for Mexican workers to undercut domestic wages, break strikes, impede union organizing, and solve labor shortages without providing workers a living wage or meaningful path to citizenship.

That program officially ended in 1964, but the exploitation of immigrant labor continues. An exception to federal child labor laws permits children as young as 12 to work in the fields for unlimited hours before and after school. Researchers have documented nicotine poisoning among child laborers who work several hours a day for years in North Carolina tobacco fields, and suffer constant headaches and nausea. These children and their parents usually are poor immigrants from Mexico or Central America.

Undocumented and non-citizen workers of all ages face disproportionate safety risks in the workplace and a higher likelihood of fatal work injury than other American workers. They are often paid less than minimum wage, denied overtime pay, and sometimes denied pay altogether. In Florida alone, more than a dozen employers have been prosecuted for the abusive exploitation of thousands of workers in the past decade.