Report Reveals Dangers Facing Child Workers on U.S. Tobacco Farms

Child Rights

A new report by Human Rights Watch highlights the dangers facing children working in U.S. tobacco fields, including children as young as 7 years old. The report, “Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in US Tobacco Farming,” is based on research conducted on tobacco farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. The study reveals that while children suffer adverse health consequences from exposure to high levels of nicotine, toxic pesticides, and dangerous working conditions, U.S. child labor laws fall short of providing any special protections for children working in the tobacco industry.

At a Senate briefing in Washington, DC, two young farmworkers shared their personal stories. Celia, a 20-year-old woman who has worked in the North Carolina tobacco fields since she was 12 years old, recalled waking up as early as 5AM to work in extremely hot weather without protective gear or access to a bathroom. She reported that she usually waited until the end of her shift (sometimes as long as 12 hours a day) to use the bathroom, and on one occasion she felt so ill while working that she simply couldn’t continue. She continued to work, however, because she knew that her family needed her help and so that she could buy her school supplies. Now that she has learned about the dangers that exposure to nicotine and pesticides could have on her health, she asks, “Why is it illegal in the U.S. for a child to buy cigarettes, but children as young as twelve can work everyday in U.S. tobacco fields?”

The fact is that child labor laws in the agricultural sector have long failed to provide child farmworkers the same protections that all other working youth receive. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, child farmworkers are able to work for longer hours, at younger ages, and under more hazardous conditions than children working in other sector. This law, which has not been updated since 1938, does not reflect the reality of children who are working today on large commercial farms, where pesticide exposure and other dangerous working conditions are far different than they were several decades ago. In tobacco fields, the negative impact to children is exacerbated due to the increased risk of nicotine poisoning, which includes symptoms such as vomiting, nausea, headaches, and dizziness. While the long-term effects of nicotine poisoning are still unclear, some research suggests that it may have an impact on a child’s brain development. Dr. Sara A. Quandt, a professor at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, pointed out at the Senate briefing that “children are not little adults” and therefore the risks to their health and development are even greater since their smaller bodies absorb toxins at a faster rate.

Unfortunately, recent legislative and administrative efforts to improve working conditions for children in agriculture have yet to bear fruit. Last Congress, Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard introduced the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE Act), a bill that would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act so that children working for hire on commercial farms would be guaranteed the same rights and protections, including the same age and hour restrictions, provided to children working in other sectors. In 2011, the Department of Labor also sought to strengthen existing child labor safety regulations, with important changes that would safeguard child farmworkers from particularly hazardous work, such as driving heavy machinery under the age of 18. These proposed changes in the regulations were withdrawn in 2012, and legislative change is also still pending.

Both the CARE Act and the proposed child labor safety regulations explicitly provided exemptions for children working on family farms. Advocates are now taking on a new strategy with regards to children working in U.S. tobacco fields by targeting tobacco companies that purchase tobacco grown in the United States. These companies include Altria Group (parent of Phillip Morris USA), British American Tobacco, China National Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco Group, Japan Tobacco Group, Lorillard, Phillip Morris International, and two international leaf merchants: Alliance One and Universal Corporation. None of these companies have the type of child labor policies that experts believe are necessary to fully protect the health and safety of children working in tobacco fields. Thus, Human Rights Watch and other child advocates are launching a campaign to urge these tobacco companies to immediately adopt child labor policies that restrict children under 18 from engaging in any work that puts them in direct contact with tobacco.

There is a role for everyone in this important effort to protect our nation’s children. To learn more about this critical issue and to get involved, please visit the campaign site: MADE IN THE USA: Child Labor and Tobacco.