Tobacco Child Labor CToday marks the 13th annual World Day Against Child Labor, a day in which we pay special attention to the crippling problem of hazardous child labor in the United States and abroad. The holiday, which was established by the United Nations’ International Labour Organization, is focused this year on education and how an accessible approach to schooling can empower young people and prepare them for employment later in life, thereby combating poverty in communities and decreasing dependence on child labor.

The problem of child labor has long been prevalent abroad, and on Wednesday at the Teamsters Union in Washington, D.C., groups like Winrock International and Partners of the Americas presented education-based strategies that they had implemented in countries like Nepal and Columbia to help combat child labor in rural communities. By keeping kids in the classroom, these groups aim to keep kids away from hazardous labor.

But what are we doing to combat child labor here in the United States? Although many people may not realize it, child labor is widely used in the tobacco industry today. As a recent report by Human Rights Watch reveals, children as young as 7 years old currently work on tobacco fields in the southern United States. Worse yet, these children often work grueling shifts (up to 12 hours), use sharp and dangerous tools, stand at dangerous heights in tobacco drying barns, and in some cases are even prohibited from drinking water. Because of their extended time in direct contact with tobacco leaves, many child workers exhibit symptoms of acute nicotine poisoning in the fields. These symptoms include nausea, fatigue, dizziness, and vomiting, and result from the absorption of nicotine through the skin.

On Thursday, The Child Labor Coalition held a congressional briefing on child tobacco labor in association with Human Rights Watch, the International Labor Rights Forum, and NC Field in honor of World Day Against Child Labor. The briefing featured a number of distinguished speakers, but chief among them was Celia Ortiz, an ex-child tobacco worker turned advocate, who told her story of suffering on tobacco farms. Celia started working in the fields when she was just 11 years old. She remembers wearing a trash bag when she worked in order to stay dry, but that she would often overheat as a result. Celia recalled having limited access to water and restroom facilities, and being scared to speak out against her employer for fear that she and her family that also worked on the farm could be fired. Celia suffered from acute nicotine poisoning about twice almost every summer, and described the symptoms by saying that she “felt like [she] was going to die.”

Celia represents just one of the countless cases of hazardous tobacco work by children in the United States. As a response, several tobacco companies including Phillip Morris International, the Altria Group, and Reynolds American have committed to a policy banning the hiring of children under 16 on tobacco farms in its supply chain. In Congress, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Representative David Cicilline (D-RI-1) have also introduced the Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act (S. 974/ H.R. 1848), which, if passed, would ban tobacco labor for youth under 18. While more needs to be done to ensure that child farmworkers are provided the same protections as all other children working in the U.S., this progress represents an important step in the right direction.

To learn more about this issue, please click here to learn more about S.974/ H.R. 1848. On this World Day Against Child Labor, let’s work together to ensure our kids remain safe and healthy.

New @first_focus Voices for Kids Blog post: #WDACL and how we can help end #ChildLabor on American tobacco fields
Tweet this now.

Want to learn more? First Focus is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions. Read more about our work on child labor.

Want to get involved? You can support our work on child care by making a donation, or joining our mailing list to receive updates and action alerts on these issues.