Duke, Claudia Santelices, Anna Marie Nicolaysen & Johan E. Galarza Rivera
The United States remains one of the primary producers of tobacco in the world,
a position it has held since the 17th century, when European colonists became
enamored of this indigenously cultivated plant. Today, most US-grown tobacco
is cultivated in the southeastern state of North Carolina, whose warm, humid
climate is ideally suited for cigarette tobacco.
However, the world’s leading producer of tobacco used for wrapping cigars
is the northeastern state of Connecticut, whose mild summers and rich, alluvial
soil make it an ideal ecological region for cultivating these temperamental
contrast to cigarette tobacco, which is ultimately ground into a coarse powder,
the economic value of wrapper tobacco is completely dependent on the integrity
of the leaves: a single tear or blemish can reduce its value on the international
market by 50% or more. As a result, this form of tobacco is extremely labor-intensive,
with nearly all stages of production, cultivation, curing, and packing carried
out by hand.
During the last 60 years, migrant laborers have principally carried out this
work, most recently from Jamaica, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. This historical,
ethnographic, and photographic essay will examine the unique social, economic,
and labor conditions among these migrant groups. In particular, we will examine
the ways in which a plant cultivated largely through 19th century technology
is deeply enmeshed in transnational processes.
and Labor Conditions on Shade Tobacco Farms in the Connecticut
River Valley .
following research pretend to feature the labour entail to the
tobacco production in Conneticut, at northeast of United States.
During the last 60 years, migrant laborers have principally
carried out this work, most recently from Jamaica, Mexico, and
Puerto Rico. This historical, ethnographic, and photographic
essay will examine the unique social, economic, and labour conditions
among these migrant groups. In particular, we will examine the
ways in which a plant cultivated largely through 19th century.
Autor: Michael Duke,
Claudia Santelices, Anna Marie Nicolaysen & Johan E. Galarza
Hispanic Health Council.
Although tobacco cultivation in North America predates European colonization
by several centuries, shade tobacco, which is the principal species used to
wrap cigars, was introduced into Connecticut from Sumatra around 1900. Initially,
farm labor was carried out almost exclusively by the farmers and their families,
most of whom had emigrated from Poland. In contrast to the general trend in
US agriculture, most of these farms have remained within the same family through
multiple generations. Over time, these farms became increasingly reliant on
seasonal, proletarianized labor from the local communities, particularly women
and children. Women’s labor was particularly prized in bundling the
leaves for drying, which requires a good deal of manual dexterity in order
to quickly and accurately sew the bundles together.
Since the 1930s, a significant number of African Americans—principally
from the southern states—became part of the migrant labor force in
Connecticut’s tobacco fields.
The Second World War resulted in chronic labor shortages in the tobacco
fields. Citing the importance of tobacco to the national economy, the Connecticut
Valley Shade Tobacco Growers Association petitioned the US government to
allow foreign guest workers to work in their fields.
As a consequence, large numbers of Jamaicans arrived in Connecticut to work
in the tobacco fields. Some of these workers left farm work and settled in
the state capital of Hartford with their families, such that Jamaicans and
other people of West Indian descent comprise a significant percentage of the
city’s African-origin population.
significant population of tobacco workers that settled in the city is from
the island of Puerto Rico, resulting in Hartford having among the highest
percentage of people of Puerto Rican descent outside the Caribbean. A more
recent group that has established a clear presence in the tobacco fields are
laborers from Mexico.
Current Labor Profile
who are numerically the dominant migrant workers in Connecticut’s tobacco
industry, receive work contracts brokered through the Jamaican Department
of Labor. Workers who are selected and pass the required medical screening
receive a temporary agricultural work visa (known as an H-2A visa) from the
US government. As a possession of the United States, Puerto Rico’s residents
are also US citizens, and so do not need visas to work on the mainland. However,
they too typically arrive at the tobacco farms through labor contracts between
the grower and labor contractors on the island.
the case of Mexican workers, a sizable number also arrive with labor contracts
and H2A work visas, like their Jamaican counterparts. However, an increasing
number have entered the country illegally—with neither a work visa
nor a labor contract. Among all groups, the labor contract typically includes
round trip transportation to Connecticut from the worker’s place of
origin. This places an additional burden on undocumented Mexican workers,
since they must absorb the transportation costs themselves. The latter can
run as high as $2,500 (nearly four million Chilean pesos), due to the expense
of paying traffickers to help them to cross the dangerous border region,
or to traverse the unforgiving desert trails that separate Mexico and the
Stages of Production
The importance of tobacco production to the local and national economy is
well-known. However, the working conditions of shade tobacco workers remains
Our ethnographic fieldwork on Connecticut’s tobacco fields began in
May 2002. It was the beginning of summer, and the workers had begun preparing
the fields for the next harvesting. It was unusually hot and humid for that
time of year, foreshadowing some of the challenges that the workers would
face during the growing and harvesting season.
As researchers, we did not always have authorization from the growers to venture
out to the fields and observe the workers first hand. However, we spent a
significant amount of time with the workers in the evening after they returned
to their barracks, in order to learn more about their experiences.
stages of shade tobacco cultivation and production are carried out by hand,
and consequently the work is extremely labor-intensive. Shade tobacco growers
estimate that each leaf is handled ten times, a far higher number than most
agricultural products. Plowing and planting are the only stages of production
that rely on heavy machinery, such as tractors and other agricultural equipment.
Because shade tobacco withers and burns in direct sunlight, workers assemble
mesh tarpaulins over the fields once the plants have sprouted. The temperature
and humidity under these tents can be quite high, particularly during the
warm summer months. Heat exhaustion is not uncommon. Because the price of
each tobacco leaf is dependent on their being cosmetically perfect, the plants
are sprayed with insecticides and fungicides during cultivation. Some workers
report being compelled to return to the fields a short time after spraying,
resulting in skin rashes, eye irritation, and respiratory problems. An additional
occupational hazard is “green tobacco sickness”, which occurs
when handling tobacco plants. Nicotine in the plant is ingested through the
skin, resulting in an overdose of the drug. Although its effects are temporary,
green tobacco sickness may result in a worker missing one or more days of
work and consequently, a significant reduction in remittances to send home
to their families.
harvesting requires that each leaf be inspected for size, and then picked
by hand. In order to remove the leaves from the field, some farms use a
conveyer belt apparatus that resembles a stationary bicycle. Long sheets
of plastic are extended to the end of each row, with one end attached to
the conveyer. As the leaves are picked, they are placed on the sheet. When
harvesting is finished for that row, a worker pedals the conveyer, thus
transporting the leaves out of the field, where they can be crated and transported
to the tobacco barn.
The tobacco barns are long wooden structures in which the bundling and curing
of the plants occurs. The walls contain movable slats so that the inside
temperature and humidity can be regulated. The roofs tend to be high, in
order to accommodate the three to four levels of wooden beams from which
the tobacco will be hung.
first stage of tobacco processing consists of sewing the leaves into bundles.
After the leaves are bundled, they are hung from the wooden beams. This work
is particularly dangerous, since it requires workers to balance from one of
the lower beams as the bundles are passed up to him, so that the bundles can
be hung in the uppermost reaches of the barn. Accidents are not uncommon during
this stage of production, resulting in back and other injuries.
the bundling and hanging of the tobacco are complete, all of the sewing
stations are removed from the barn. Propane heaters are then placed on the
floor to maintain the proper temperature for curing the leaves.
The curing process takes several days, and is characterized by the sweet
aroma of the drying tobacco. After the curing process is completed, the
leaves are lowered from the rafters and packed for shipping to the Dominican
Republic, where they are inspected and sorted, and then sold to the island’s
numerous cigar manufacturers.
For the most part, the workers—regardless of ethnic origin—bear
up to the labor abuses of the farmer. For Jamaican workers this passive
acceptance, coupled with their facility as native speakers of English and
their greater experience with tobacco cultivation and production, have made
them highly desirable to growers, and it is not uncommon for these workers
to return to the same farm for ten seasons or more.
in situation, although not in prestige, are the Mexican workers. The growing
presence of undocumented Mexican workers and the reduced number of their compatriots
with work visas have resulted in an increasingly docile labor force during
the economic downturn that extended into 2003.
Rican workers are somewhat distinct from those in the other two ethnic groups
since, as United States citizens, feel freer than their counterparts in advocating
for improved living and working conditions. As a result, the number of Puerto
Rican tobacco workers has been notably reduced during the three previous growing
seasons, as the current economic recession has resulted in a downturn in demand
for luxury cigars. During the 2003 growing season, for example, one of the
largest tobacco farms in the Valley employed 100 Jamaicans, and only 20 Puerto
Shade tobacco workers face numerous challenges, from the moment they leave
their homes until they pack their suitcase at the end of the harvest season.
Issues of citizenship, legal status, language, economic necessity, and fluctuations
in the international cigar tobacco market have particular effects for each
group in terms of modes of production and management-labor relations. For
many of the workers, their primary economic strategy depends on returning
to the same farm each year.
order to improve their chances of being invited to return for the following
season, many workers take great pains to be perceived by the grower as stoic
and hard-working. This often entails unquestioningly carrying out dangerous
work and accepting verbal abuse and other forms of mistreatment by the crew
For example, “Franklin”, a Jamaican worker from the capital
city of Kingston, commented, “Yeah, our work has some risky parts,
in terms of chemicals. You deal with a lot of chemicals in the fields”.
“Manuel”, from Ponce, Puerto Rico, noted that, “On this
farm I’ve found that there is a lack of drinking water…In the
fields, I haven’t seen any water (stations) either above or below.
This is essential, to have a place to wash your hands, or so that you can
(wash to) eat. Above all are the chemicals…I don’t know if this
guy here (the farmer) is struggling, but at least the other guy (the owner
of the previous farm where he worked) would give you a little something
extra in order to protect yourself”.
his part, “George”, from Saint Elizabeth, Jamaica, added, “The
thing that I find more risky, sometimes the sun is hot, sometimes it’s
like ninety degrees (Fahrenheit, forty degrees Celsius) outside…But
sometimes there are thunderstorms, lightening, (the workers) may be out
there from half an hour before we have to go (inside).
So I find that risky, ya know?” However, “he who doesn’t
take a risk doesn’t win” is a common saying in the camps for
addressing the dangers and irregularities of farm work. This perspective
is summed up by “Carlton”, from Saint Elizabeth, Jamaica, who
noted that working conditions “are awful…It effects us a whole
lot…But in terms of, we’s here for a reason…we got to
live with certain things”.
the tobacco begins its journey to the Dominican Republic, the workers begin
leaving the farms. For the most part, the Puerto Rican workers will return
to the Island, while those from Mexico and Jamaica will travel to other
agricultural regions in the Northeastern United States to seek work on other
farms, in order to earn more money for their families.
the fields and barns lie barren in the distance, and the once-crowded barracks
are deserted. And next May, a new cycle of planting, harvesting, and exploitation
will begin anew.