CLC Press Release: Ban Child Labor in US Tobacco Fields

For immediate release: November 22, 2013
Contact: Reid Maki, (202) 207-2820,

Washington, DC—In the wake of child labor exposés by The Nation magazine last week, the Child Labor Coalition is calling on the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to immediately ban child labor in tobacco fields—something the department had proposed to do in 2011.

In “Why Are Children Working in American Tobacco Fields?,” Gabriel Thompson’s reporting describes the alarming health risks young tobacco workers face. He tells the story of three young sisters age 12, 13, and 14 whose tobacco harvesting made them ill from “green tobacco sickness” or nicotine poisoning. Despite their health problems, the girls went on to work four summers of 60-hour weeks in the tobacco fields, absorbing the nicotine from the equivalent of 36 cigarettes each day, according to a study cited by The Nation.

“We don’t let 12-year-olds buy and smoke cigarettes,” noted Sally Greenberg, co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition and the executive director of the National Consumers League. “Why would we let them perform dangerous work in tobacco fields beginning at the age of 12? It simply isn’t right.”

“Children should not be allowed to perform dangerous work, especially in the tobacco fields,” said Norma Flores López, Chair of the Domestic Issues Committee for the Child Labor Coalition and the Director of the Children in the Fields Campaign at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. “Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of nicotine, pesticides and heat stress they are exposed to in the tobacco fields. We urge the Secretary to put the health of farmworker children over the interest of tobacco companies, and strengthen the protections for children working in agriculture.”

Thompson’s reporting cited a study that one in four tobacco workers contract green tobacco sickness.”Symptoms range from dizziness and vomiting to difficulty breathing and heart rate fluctuations requiring hospitalization,” reported Thompson. “The pain can be so excruciating that some workers call it ‘the green monster.’ A tobacco farmer in Kentucky said the sickness ‘can make you feel like you’re going to die…’”

Thompson notes that the known hazards of tobacco work have led countries “like Russia and Kazakhstan to ban anyone under 18 from harvesting tobacco,” and that the US “has played a role in such global efforts, recently spending at least $2.75 million” to eliminate child tobacco labor in Malawi.”

The US Department of Labor had called for a ban on tobacco harvesting by individuals under 18 in proposed “hazardous occupations orders” issued in 2011. These proposed occupational safety rules would have limited or prohibited teen work in 15 areas that are known to be dangerous for teen workers—unless the young individual was working on their family’s farm. Sadly, the rules were withdrawn in April 2012 after months of intense pressure from the American Farm Bureau and many members of the farm community. Many health and safety advocacy groups, including the CLC, felt the campaign against the proposed rules, which would have exempted children working on their own family farm, profoundly misleading.

When the proposed rules were withdrawn, the CLC estimated that not implementing them would result in the death of 50 to 100 working children on farms over the next decade.

“In withdrawing these badly needed safety rules, the Obama Administration yielded to industry lobbyists, but this new information about exposure to tobacco raises new warning flags,” noted Greenberg. “The Nation’s reporting makes it clear that the US government has a responsibility to protect 12-year-olds toiling in the fields. It must pick up the process it started and protect child workers from the known dangers of tobacco harvesting.”

In an accompanying piece, “Regulations are Killed, and Kids Die,” researcher Mariya Strauss notes that at least 12 young farmworkers under the age of 16 have died since the proposed regulations were withdrawn. “At least four of them died doing the hazardous tasks those rules would have prohibited them from performing,” said Strauss.

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Essay Contest Spotlights the Plight of Child Farmworkers in the US

One of the privileges of working on child labor issues is getting to know the stories of individual child workers who heroically struggle against poverty and the considerable odds that are stacked against them. Thanks to a wonderful annual essay and art contest held by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), the management of the National Consumers League joins fellow leaders of the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) to serve as judges of the contest, through which we gain valuable insight into the plight of America’s most vulnerable young workers.

The CLC, founded by the National Consumers League 24 years ago, has worked for many years to educate the public about the little-known problem of child labor on US farms, where gaps in US child labor law allow children as young as 12 to work unlimited hours—as long as school is not in session. At NCL and CLC, we are particularly worried about the impact of child labor on the sons and daughters of migrant farmworkers who are exposed to dangerous pesticides, hazardous farm machines, and suffer a worrisome dropout rate, as a result of their families’ migration and their exhausting field work.

Unless you’ve witnessed it, it’s hard to imagine how hard working 8-12 hours a day in near 100-degree heat is. Thanks to AFOP’s annual migrant youth essay and art contest we hear firsthand what the experience is like.

Maria Enerida Patino, 13, from Homestead, Florida began her essay, which won in the 10-13 age group, with this description:

The blistering rays of the scorching sun are penetrating through a thin coat of clothing burning my back. Sweat is running down my face, back, neck, arms, and legs. I can feel the heat buildup on my hair slowly sinking its way into my head. My stomach growls, and roars with pain from not having eaten since last night’s supper. I’ve been working since five o’clock in the morning, at least at that time it was cool.

She goes on to note what a life working in the fields has done to her father: “My father worked in the fields all his life. He was exposed to the chemicals that were sprayed on the plants to make them grow and produce fruit faster. When he would sweat the chemicals would slide down into his eyes causing them to turn red. Due to irreversible damage to his eyes they state that way for the rest of his life.”

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