Open Letter to the President: CLC Members are Joined By Other NGOs and Ask the Adminstration to Protect Child Tobacco Workers in the US

Art work courtesy Human Rights Watch

Dear Mr. President,

We write to you as organizations representing millions of Americans, including teachers, healthcare professionals, workers, farmworkers, and advocates concerned about the safety, education, and welfare of children.  We are alarmed at recent reports that children are risking acute nicotine poisoning and other health and safety hazards in US tobacco fields, and would like to urge your administration to take immediate action to protect these children.

A study released in May by Human Rights Watch, based on interviews with 141 child tobacco workers in the four largest tobacco-producing states (North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee), found that nearly three-quarters of the child tobacco workers they interviewed had experienced the sudden onset of serious symptoms—including nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, skin rashes, and irritation to their eyes and mouths —while working in fields of tobacco plants and in curing barns. Many of these symptoms are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning.

Human Rights Watch found child tobacco workers, ages 11 and 12, working 10-12 hours per day or more. These children described working in extreme heat, using sharp tools and heavy machinery, and working at heights of more than one story in curing barns. More than half of the children interviewed reported being exposed to toxic pesticides. Public health experts have noted that several pesticides commonly used during tobacco farming are known neurotoxins, which can cause cancer, depression, neurologic deficits, and reproductive health problems.


The health risks to children working in tobacco cultivation are greater than those of adults. Children’s smaller body size increases the dosage of chemicals (nicotine and pesticides) absorbed and their developing nervous and reproductive systems leave them more likely to develop negative health outcomes in later life. They also lack the experience and judgment of adults; inexperience among workers has led to a higher incidence of acute nicotine poisoning and heat-related deaths.

Current US law allows children working in agriculture, including tobacco, to work at far younger ages, for far longer hours, and under more hazardous conditions than all other working children. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, there is no minimum age for a child to begin working on a small farm with parental permission. At age 12, a child can work for any number of hours outside of school on a farm of any size with parental permission, and at age 14, a child can work on any farm without parental permission. At 16, children working in agriculture can work in jobs deemed to be particularly hazardous. These standards leave child farmworkers, and especially those working in tobacco, at unacceptable risk.

Recent editorials in the Washington Post (May 18) and New York Times (May 17) both called on your administration to do more to address these risks to children.  Eighteen members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce have called for hearings, and 17 members of the Senate have written directly to top tobacco companies to urge them to adopt and implement stronger child labor policies.

We believe the Obama administration should take immediate action to protect the health and safety of children working in US tobacco. Specifically, we recommend:

1) Regulatory Action: The most expeditious way to protect children in the United States from the hazards of tobacco farming is through a hazardous occupations order issued by the Department of Labor specifically prohibiting hazardous work by children in tobacco. In 2011 the Department of Labor issued proposed regulations that would have updated – for the first time in decades – the list of tasks too dangerous for children under age 16 employed in agriculture. Among the proposed list of prohibited tasks was “all work in tobacco production and curing, including, but not limited to such activities as planting, cultivating, topping, harvesting, baling, barning, and curing.” Opposition to the regulations mischaracterized them as applying to family farms and seemed most often to focus on several specific elements, including the use of tractors and power-driven machinery and tools. We regret that your administration withdrew the proposed regulations in 2012.


We urge the administration to issue a narrowly tailored regulation specifically prohibiting children from hazardous work in tobacco, given the unique risks that child tobacco workers face from exposure to nicotine and toxic pesticides.

2) Data Collection: Currently, there is no accurate federal data regarding the number of children under the age of 18 who are working in tobacco in the United States, or on the number of child farmworkers generally. Current data regarding working children excludes children under age 14 (who can only work in agriculture), children hired by farmworker contractors, children working on their own families’ farms, and children who are working informally. Current data also rely on self-reporting by farmers, which leads to undercounting. The number of child farmworkers working for hire (not on family farms) is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, but credible data is lacking.

We urge the administration to instruct the Department of Labor to expand its National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) to collect disaggregated data regarding all child farmworkers under, as well as over, age 14, including children hired by labor contractors, to devise methods that do not require self-reporting from farmers, and to make their findings public.

3) Labor Department Investigations: Given the dangers of tobacco work for children, it is imperative that children working in violation of existing law, including the minimum age of employment, be kept out of tobacco fields. It is common for members of the Child Labor Coalition to find children below legal work age toiling in the fields during investigations of farms that employ farmworker families. In the past, Labor Department’s targeted investigations, such as Operation Salad Bowl as well as more recent blueberry investigations, served the purpose of ensuring that the grower community becomes aware that some children below the age of 12 may be working on their farms. Given the small number of child labor investigations conducted in US agriculture, it is critical that the Labor Department conduct targeted child labor investigations periodically to communicate to the grower community that child labor laws continue to be enforced.

Three of the four states that produce 90 percent of US tobacco (Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee) have failed to take sufficient measures to enforce the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Field Sanitation Standard. This standard requires workers to be provided with fresh drinking water, hand washing facilities, and toilets. Human Rights Watch’s study found that most children interviewed were not provided with hand washing facilities or toilets, and some were not given sufficient drinking water. In particular, the lack of hand washing facilities greatly increases the risks of nicotine and pesticide exposure. According to the OSHA Integrated Management Information System, from January 2010 to December 2013 Kentucky carried out only eight field inspections in tobacco, Tennessee carried out one field inspection, and Virginia carried out none. Only one of the four major tobacco-producing states – North Carolina – made meaningful attempts to enforce the Field Sanitation Standard, with 143 inspections during the time period.

We urge the administration to instruct the Department of Labor to conduct rigorous and targeted field inspections in all four major tobacco-producing states to identify child labor in tobacco, and to assess compliance with the OSHA Field Sanitation Standard, and to work with the states to ensure sufficient future enforcement measures.

4) Health Hazard Alerts: OSHA has the authority to issue health hazard alerts regarding specific occupational dangers and how employers can mitigate risks to their employees. For example, in 2011 OSHA sent a health hazard alert regarding suffocation risks in grain silos to 13,000 employers nationwide. To our knowledge, the Labor Department has not issued a health hazard alert regarding the specific risks of tobacco work.

We urge OSHA to issue a specific health hazard alert regarding the dangers of nicotine and pesticide exposure in tobacco farming, highlighting the particular vulnerabilities of children to toxic exposures.

We believe these four steps would have a significant impact and greatly reduce the health and safety risks that children working in US tobacco currently face.

We would also like to request the opportunity for representatives of the undersigned groups to meet with you directly to discuss our concerns, recommendations, and the administration’s planned course of action.


Sincerely yours,


Child Labor Coalition

American Federation of Teachers

Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs

Bank Information Center

Beyond Borders


Children’s Health Fund

Coalition of Human Needs

Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Communications Workers of America

Farmworker Justice

First Focus Campaign for Children

Free the Slaves

Global Campaign for Education-US

Global Fairness Initiative


Human Rights Watch

Injury Control Research Center, West Virginia University

Interfaith Worker Justice

International Brotherhood of Teamsters

International Initiative to End Child Labor

International Labor Rights Forum

Jobs With Justice

League of United Latin American Citizens

Media Voices for Children

Migrant Legal Action Program


National Association of State Directors of Migrant Education

National Consumers League

National Education Association

National Employment Law Project

National Farmworker Ministry

National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association


New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health

North Carolina Justice Center

Oxfam America

Pesticide Action Network North America

Public Citizen

The Ramsay Merriam Fund

Solidarity Center, AFL-CIO

Student Action with Farmworkers

United States Fund for UNICEF

United Food and Commercial Workers International Union

United Methodist Church, Board of Church and Society

United Methodist Women

United Mine Workers of America

Walden Asset Management

Winrock International

World Vision