CLC-Member Human Rights Watch: No Virginia, Tobacco Fields are Not a Place for Children

By Zama Coursen-Neff, Human Rights Watch

zama“Are you saying my parents were stupid?”

From Virginia lawmaker Jonny Joannou, it seemed like a reasonable question. If working on the tobacco farm as a child was fine for many Virginians, why should the state ban it now?

The moment came during a committee hearing of the Virginia House of Delegates I attended Tuesday on abill, introduced by Delegate Alfonso Lopez, that would make it illegal to hire children under 18 to work in direct contact with tobacco, unless the child’s parent or grandparent owned the farm. I was there to support the restrictions based on Human Rights Watch’s extensiveresearch on the topic. At the moment, the state’s child labor law, like federal law, exempts child farm workers from the protections enjoyed by all other children who work.

Still, the lawmaker’s question is one I wrestle with. My grandfather grew up working on a farm in Texas, and my dad worked construction in Louisiana at age 12.Now I’m fighting to stop children from doing dangerous jobs, including on tobacco farms where they risk poisoning by nicotine and pesticides. Am I shaming my grandfather and the millions like him who have sent children to work?

If Joannou had directed his question to me, this is what I would have said:

I like to think our parents tried to do what’s best. Children—when they are old enough—can gain valuable skills and work ethic from jobs that are safe and don’t interfere with their education. I want this for my kids, too.

But we now know things our parents didn’t – about car seats, lead-free paint, folic acid, and of course cigarettes. When it comes to child labor, we also know more now about the effect pesticides used on tobacco—many of which are known neurotoxins—have on children’s still-developing bodies. While the long-term effects of nicotine absorption through the skin have not been studied, a recent US Surgeon General’s report suggests that nicotine exposure during adolescence may have lasting consequences for brain development. Almost two-thirds of the more than 140 child tobacco workers we interviewed reported suddenly becoming ill at work with vomiting and nausea, dizziness, difficulty breathing and other symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning.

The House committee swiftly killed the bill, leaving Virginia’s 12-year-olds free to work unlimited hours on tobacco farms in the state this summer. Afterwards, Joannou admitted that he hadn’t worked on a farm as a child, although he did wash dishes in a family-owned restaurant.

I don’t think that real-life farmworker parents—many of whom are desperately poor and largely uninformed about risks in the field—are “stupid” for sending their children to do work that is currently absolutely legal.  But I don’t think it’s smart for legislators to ignore the best evidence we have now on the risks faced by children working tobacco.



CLC-Member the National Consumers League Condemns the Defeat of a Child Labor Bill in Virginia

For immediate release: February 4, 2015
Contact: Ben Klein, National Consumers League, 835-3323

Washington, DC – The National Consumers League (NCL) is deeply disappointed in the defeat of a Virginia State Legislature bill that would have been the first of its kind to protect children from working in dangerous tobacco fields. “This takes us back a century ago when children in America were working in mines, factories, and mills. The reactionary forces fought protections for kids back then, just as they are doing today,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League (NCL) and co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which NCL co-founded 25 years ago.  “It’s just as intolerable to expose kids to these toxics today as it was in 1915.”

The bill (HB 1906), introduced last month by Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington), was defeated yesterday in the Republican-controlled Committee on Commerce and Labor. HB 1906 would have made it illegal for children, other than the members of a farmer’s own family, from harvesting tobacco. Recent reports of children being sickened by acute nicotine poisoning in tobacco fields battling nausea, headaches, vomiting, and dizziness have sparked a national movement to ban this practice.

“It is our obligation to protect our most vulnerable workers. It is very disappointing to see Virginia lawmakers cave to big tobacco interests and defeat this common-sense child labor protection,” said Reid Maki. “We will continue to ask lawmakers at both the federal and state levels to ban child labor in U.S. tobacco fields.”

Lopez’s bill would have prohibited farmers from hiring anyone under 18 to work in direct contact with tobacco leaves. HB 1906 would have been the first legislation of its kind in a state that harvests tobacco. In Virginia, it would preempt some of the outdated Fair Labor Standards Act provisions that allow children as young as 12 to work unlimited hours on farms performing the dangerous work.

“Young children should not be working in direct contact with tobacco. They are especially vulnerable to nicotine poisoning due to their size and stage of development. Indeed, a recent report from the surgeon general suggests that nicotine exposure during adolescence may have lasting negative consequences,” said Del. Lopez in a press release.