End child labor in American tobacco fields

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.



Help Us End Child Slavery

Join Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi as he presses for movement to end child slavery. There are 5.5 million child slaves in the world–that’s 5.5 million too many! Sign the petition here.


Ending Child Slavery…All Together Now!

by Jill Christianson, National Education Association

On a sunny day late in September, I tagged along on a lobbying visit to the Brazilian Embassy in Washington – led by Kailash Satyarthi, with colleagues from the Child Labor Coalition and the International Labor Rights Forum.  Following this fall’s swirl of activities at the UN General Assembly and a myriad of meetings about the Beyond-2015 plans (Sustainable Development Goals) including education, Kailash is focused on one thing…ENDING CHILD SLAVERY.

Kailash Satyarthi – who is this year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Malala, talked in that meeting about how language about ending child slavery can be inserted into the negotiations for the new goals.  He’s counting on governments taking the lead to act on behalf children who are trapped in slavery.  The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are around 5.5 million children who are enslaved.  This includes thousands of children in fisheries in Ghana, girl brides in Yemen, 6-year-olds who are Restaveks in Haiti, children weaving carpets in India, and the over 100,000 children who are sex trafficked in the United States. 

Stories of ending slavery are impactful – we can make a difference.

The educators of Maryland recently heard from survivors of trafficking (yes, a form of slavery) at the Maryland State Education Association Convention.  Survivor Evelyn Chumbow told her story of being sold at the age of 9 and transported from her community in Cameroon to domestic torture in Silver Spring, Maryland.  She counts herself younger today to compensate for the lost years that she endured in slavery.  She is speaking out about her experience so that others can learn and take action.

Evan Robbins is a teacher making an impact.  With his students at Metuchen High School in New Jersey, he has successfully helped broker the release of 40 children who were slaves in the fisheries of Lake Volta in Ghana.  His organization, Breaking the Chains through Education is now funding a Ghanaian social worker to ensure the well-being of the rescued children – in community life and at school.  Evan’s high school students make presentations in their community about the children who are enslaved in the fisheries of the West African nation and actions that every day people in the United States can do to help.

We have a global issue here – and yes, we can take action.  Though we have globally made progress on EFA and the MDGs in education since 2000 – we now must focus on the hardest to reach children in the most difficult of circumstances.  The new Sustainable Development Goals will likely call for progress of all nations – including the United States – in education and beyond.  You can add your voice to be sure that the enslavement of children is addressed in these goals.

Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General needs to hear from us.  Sign the Petition to End Child Slavery.  By doing so, we can make a difference!

The End Child Slavery Week, beginning on November 20, brings global attention to the needs of children whose human rights are not recognized – including the right to quality education.   This new advocacy includes the Global March Against Child Labor, combined with Education International, Anti-Slavery International and other global organizations.  Together, we can act to end the enslavement of children.

Jill Christianson is with the International Relations office at the National Education Association and a member of the Child Labor Coalition. (This column was originally published Oct. 31, 2014 on the web site of the National Education Association).

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