More than 150 million children around the world are forced into labor. Even in the US, it is legal for children as young as 12 to work in the agricultural industry.

In a briefing on Capitol Hill to mark World Day Against Child Labor, Ana Flores shared her experiences working in the tobacco fields of North Carolina as a 14-year-old. She described being exposed to pesticides and nicotine, extreme heat in the summer, and limited breaks for water and food. Flores recounted the grueling daily ordeal of the backbreaking work and told of the time her single mother, also working in the fields to provide for her three kids, collapsed from the brutal heat.

Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian children’s rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, spoke at the briefing about the global scourge of child labor and argued that freeing children from unjust labor practices is essential to combating fundamentalism and terrorism. He credited America’s global fight against child labor with decreasing the number of child laborers by 100 million kids over the past 25 years. Satyarthi urged the US to continue placing this issue at the top of the international community’s human rights agenda.

But within the US, child labor is still common in tobacco fields, such as the one where Flores worked, where exposure to nicotine, extreme weather, and harsh work conditions threaten children’s health and development.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, hazards like the ones encountered on tobacco farms do the most damage to people under the age of 18. Even if kids have grown to their full-size, their brains are still developing and vulnerable to the toxic effects of pesticides and nicotine. Though some tobacco companies have changed their policies to limit workers to 16 years of age and over, exemptions in regulations still continue to damage children’s health and wellbeing.  

Sadly, the American government has largely left this issue unchecked, even with clear examples of the ill-effects of child labor.

It is apparent that leaving it up to private companies to set their own child welfare labor regulations is insufficient – the government must act to protect child laborers now and put in place a comprehensive child rights framework.

There are several actions Congress could take today to end this kind of oppressive child labor, including a bill introduced by US Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) seeking to abolish child labor in the tobacco industry.

Even on non-tobacco farms in the US, child laborers face dangerous and oppressive conditions, insufficient pay, and long hours.

To combat this, US Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) introduced the CARE Act of 2017, to raise the minimum age of farm workers to 16-years-old and of hazardous workers to 18-years-old. The bill still provides exemptions to family farms and permits 14- and 15-year-olds to work, but with increased protections and limits on their hours.

Astonishingly, the US is one of the only countries in the world that has refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a global treaty it helped draft in the 1980s to protect the human rights of children. Ratifying the treaty now and acting on the congressional legislation would send a clear signal that America takes the issue of child labor seriously around the world and on its own shores.