Child farm labor debate resurfaces with focus on tobacco farms

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



Leading the charge is Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who plans to urge tobacco companies to stop from using child labor in their supply chains. Harkin cited a report by Human Rights Watch released last week that found children as young as seven working on tobacco farms, where they often labor from dawn to dark for minimum wages exposing themselves to large doses of nicotine with no or inadequate protective gear.

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“Though federal law prohibits the sale of cigarettes to children, children can legally work on tobacco farms in the U.S.,” Harkin said in a news release. “The world's largest tobacco companies buy tobacco grown on U.S. farms, but none have child labor policies that sufficiently protect children from hazardous work.”

The 138-page Human Rights Watch report, “Tobacco's Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in U.S. Tobacco Farming,” was based on interviews with 141 children ages 7 to 17, who worked on tobacco farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, where 90 percent of U.S. tobacco is grown.

Margaret Wurth, a researcher for Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report, said that at the end of the school year, while most children are enjoying a vacation, the children she interviewed headed into tobacco fields to help their usually poor families make ends meet.

In the fields, “they can't avoid being exposed to dangerous nicotine, without smoking a single cigarette,” Wurth said at a news conference on Capitol Hill. “It's no surprise that children exposed to poisons in the tobacco fields are getting sick.”

Wurth said the children reported vomiting, nausea, headaches and dizziness, all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, often called Green Tobacco Sickness. They also face other serious risks, from the sharp objects they use to cut the leaves, from repetitive motion, and from climbing high into the rafters of barns to hang the leaves to dry.

Human Rights Watch criticized U.S. labor laws, which allow children working in agriculture to work longer hours, at younger ages and in more hazardous conditions than children in any other industry. With a parent's permission, children as young as 12 can work for unlimited hours outside of school on a farm of any size, and there is no minimum age for children to work on small farms. Also, at 16, child farm workers can do jobs classified as hazardous by the Labor Department, while in other industries, they must be 18.

Regulations proposed by the Labor Department in 2011 would have prohibited children under 16 from working on tobacco farms, but they were withdrawn in 2012. Last year, Rep. Lucille

Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., introduced the Children's Act for Responsible Employment, or CARE Act, that would not allow children in agriculture to work longer hours than children working in other industries. It would require children to be at least 14 to work in agriculture, and at least 18 to perform particularly hazardous work.

Human Rights Watch said they contacted 10 companies that purchase tobacco grown in the U.S. and all except China National Tobacco responded, saying they are concerned about child labor in their supply chains. The organization said it us urging the companies to prohibit children from doing any work that poses a threat to their health or safety including any job that involves direct contact with tobacco plants.

Philip Morris International (PMI) said it welcomed the report.

“This report uncovers serious child labor abuses that should not occur on any farm, anywhere. Human Rights Watch acknowledges the work PMI has done to address these issues through our Agricultural Labor Practices (ALP) global program to reach nearly half a million smallholder farmers. However more work remains to be done to eliminate child and other labor abuses in tobacco growing,” said Chief Executive Officer André Calantzopoulos.

The Kentucky Farm Bureau responded to the report with a statement noting that “It is difficult to believe that any parents - and especially a Kentucky farm family - would risk the safety or health of their own children by setting them to a task that they are not properly trained to execute or place them in harm's way." But the group also noted that many children work on their parents' farms to help prepare them to take over the farms when they grow up.

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