The children also said they worked long hours — often in extreme heat — without overtime pay or sufficient breaks and wore no, or inadequate, protective gear. A majority of the children reported receiving $7.25 per hour for their work.
According to the report, U.S. agriculture labor laws allow children to work longer hours at younger ages and in more hazardous conditions than children in any other industry. With their parent's permission, children as young as 12 can be hired for unlimited hours outside of school hours on a farm of any size. And there's no minimum age for children to work on small farms.
In 2011, the Labor Department proposed changes that would have prohibited children under 16 from working on tobacco farms, but they were withdrawn in 2012.
Human Rights Watch met with many of the world's biggest cigarette makers and tobacco suppliers to discuss its findings and encourage them to adopt or strengthen policies to prevent the practices in their supply chains.
The companies are concerned about child labor in their supply chains and have developed standards, including requiring growers to provide a safe work environment and adhere to child labor laws, the group said.
"The conditions are inhumane and they should improve them," said 17-year-old Erick Garcia, of Kinston, North Carolina, who has been working in tobacco field since he was 11 to help his family earn more money.
Additionally, Garcia said kids should primarily focus on school and shouldn't be in the fields: "That's not a place for children," he said.
Republican Kentucky state Sen. Paul Hornback, who has worked in tobacco fields since he was 10 and now farms about 100 acres of tobacco in Shelby County, Kentucky, said while he adheres to federal regulations to keep his workers safe, he doesn't believe further restrictions are needed.
"People get pretty extreme about trying to protect everybody from everything," Hornback said. "It's hard manual labor, but there's nothing wrong with hard manual labor."
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press