They are far too young to legally purchase cigarettes, yet children as young as 7 are being permitted to work in American tobacco fields and to be exposed to acute nicotine poisoning. Momentum is building to ban child labor from U.S. tobacco fields, as news is spreading of this American disgrace. Learn what is being done about this and how you can get involved.
For decades, advocates at the National Consumers League (NCL) and the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which NCL co-chairs, have called for closing the loopholes that allow young children to work in agriculture. Exemptions to U.S. child labor law permit children to work long hours in the fields.
In May, CLC member organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the dangers in a report, Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming, finding that three-quarters of more than 140 child workers in tobacco fields interviewed in several states reported falling ill. Many of their symptoms—nausea, vomiting, appetite loss, headaches, and dizziness—are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, or “Green Tobacco Sickness.”
In July, 53 groups signed onto a CLC letter urging the largest tobacco corporations to take voluntary action to ban children from tobacco fields. Last month, 50 organizations wrote President Obama to urge greater protections for child tobacco workers.
In September, the New York Times profiled child laborers in tobacco fields, exposing the horrific working conditions. Following the story, the Council for Burley Tobacco, an industry group that represents 5,000 tobacco growers, publicly distanced itself from child labor in tobacco fields: “We do not condone the hiring of anyone under the age of 16 for work in tobacco anywhere in the world.”
Congress has responded to advocates’ cries. In July, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) introduced legislation that would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to eliminate child labor on tobacco farms. In September, Rep. Matt Cartwright (P-PA) called for regulatory reform that would strengthen the laws that protect these child workers. In the Senate, a 16-member coalition led by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) wrote a letter to the largest tobacco corporations asking them to ban work by minors.
Advocates are hoping the recent media attention will raise awareness about the plight of these working minors and contribute to the momentum needed to enact reforms.
“As a nation, we have turned our backs on some of America’s most vulnerable workers. In tobacco-producing states, children as young as seven years old are facing Third World conditions,” NCL Executive Director and CLC Co-Chair Sally Greenberg wrote in an editorial that appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Toiling in the hot sun, these child workers must don black plastic trash bags with holes poked for their head and arms to avoid contact with tobacco leaves. Without it, their skin absorbs nicotine — a lot of nicotine. On a humid day, when tobacco leaves are dripping with dew, a tobacco worker may be exposed to levels of nicotine equivalent to smoking three dozen cigarettes. Nearly a two-pack-a-day habit.”
For decades, health and child labor advocates have called for reforms to our laws to better protect the children working in American fields across all of agriculture. In 2012, they experienced a devastating setback when the Obama Administration buckled to the agriculture lobby and legislators from tobacco-producing states, withdrawing rules that would have increased protections for child farmworkers. The rules would have specifically banned tobacco work for children under 16.
“So often, we condemn labor abuses on the other side of the world,” said CLC Coordinator Reid Maki. “But we have a national disgrace right here in America. We must hold ourselves to the same or higher standards and no longer turn a blind eye to the scourge that is child labor in American tobacco. We must enact regulations to protect the nation’s most vulnerable workers—our children—from this dangerous work.”
What you can do
HRW has created an online petition calling on companies, urging them to require that growers in their supply chain hire only workers who are 18 years or older to work in hazardous jobs on tobacco farms, including any tasks where they have direct contact with tobacco plants or cured tobacco, and to develop an effective monitoring mechanism that ensures these rules are understood and respected. Get involved! Sign the petition and share it with friends today!
This article was written by NCL staff in November 2014.