Tag Archive for: Tobacco


Len Morris: Our Kids Are Watching Us

For the first time in more than a year, Democrats and Republicans have begun to speak mistily about the prospects for our children’s future.

“With every word we utter, with every action we take, we know our kids are watching us. Kids look to us to determine who and what they can be.”       –Michelle Obama

Words alone don’t matter. What actions can the Congress and President take immediately to improve the lives of American children?

Human Rights Watch has reported extensively on health hazards of children working in the American Tobacco Industry. Voluntary policies to eliminate child labor in tobacco are insufficient and carry no force of law. The Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act (S.974/H.R.1848) should be passed by Congress and signed into law. The medical evidence is overwhelming; children have no business handling tobacco. This bill should take five minutes to pass, about the same amount of time it takes to read. Pass this Bill now, in the lame duck Congressional session in September.

CLC-member Len Morris of Media Voices for Children

CLC-member Len Morris of Media Voices for Children

If we’re going to protect children in the fields who pick tobacco, why not protect all children who work in American agriculture whose lives and educations are put on hold and whose health is compromised by 12-hour days of work in one of the most dangerous occupations in the country? The Children’s Care Act for Responsible Employment (HR2764) has had the support of over a hundred national organizations and dozens of House members but has failed to find a single United States Senator willing to champion them by sponsoring legislation in the Senate. And so every day, in every state of our union, hundreds of thousands of children pick our fruits and vegetables, exposed to pesticides. With a 60% drop-out rate from school, they are utterly poor and equally vulnerable… a target for human traffickers.

After 80 years of delay, it’s long past time for the Congress and President to amend the 1939 law that ended child labor in America. Adults should work in the fields and make a living wage; children belong in school. It’s time for The Care Act to be sponsored in the Senate so this legislation has an opportunity to pass. Why wait – what’s to be gained by more delay? Do this in September.


Over 65,000 young people, who were brought as children to this country by their parents in search of a better life, live each year in the shadow of deportation and are unable enroll in school, find work or pursue normal lives. For years, Congress has failed to pass multiple versions of The Dream Act, a bipartisan supported Bill that would enable Dreamers to qualify to remain in America, live and work and contribute to America, including service in our military. This bill is not an amnesty, it’s a pathway to legitimacy for young adults guilty only of being brought here as children.

While Congress talks itself to death, America loses out on the economic potential of some of our brightest children. One UCLA report found that Dreamers would add between 1.4 to 3.6 trillion dollars to the American economy during their work lives. The Congressional Budget Office sees the national deficit reduced by 1.4 billion dollars as the Bill reduces and focuses the costs of border security to those individuals who constitute a real and violent threat to our society. But mostly, The Dream Act is a simple test of American values. Can we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes? Can we find the empathy we need to make room at our table for children, who are in fact our schoolmates, our neighbors, our soldiers? Now is the time to pass the Dream Act because it’s the right thing to do for those children but for also ourselves, as an expression of our own humanity.

“We don’t chase fame and fortune for ourselves, we fight to give everyone a chance to succeed, because we always know there is someone who is worse off and there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

                                        –Michelle Obama

Children’s rights are human rights and human rights are children’s rights, that’s the point of the 1995 treaty, The Convention on the Rights of the Child. Every nation on earth, except the United States, has adopted the Convention, a landmark document of utter simplicity that sets out the kind of world we should all aspire to for all children. While President Clinton signed the Treaty in 1995, no American President has ever submitted it to the United States Senate for its required “advise and consent”. Over the years, objections to the Convention came from those upset that it prohibits either juvenile execution or life sentences, positions upheld by The United States Supreme Court. Home-school advocates have objected to the Convention’s requirement for mandatory public education. But the actual issue preventing adoption has always been American exceptionalism, the feeling that we shouldn’t agree to any treaty binding our behavior on the global stage.

President Obama, here is an easy addition to your legacy. Send this Convention on to the Senate and make a strong statement about children’s human rights. By doing the right thing, you’d re-energize the debate about the welfare of children around the world and at home. You’d set an example and force the Senate to look into its heart. With Somalia’s ratification last year, America has the distinction of being the ONLY country to not ratify The Convention on the Rights of the Child…. and what a distinction that is… to sit on the sidelines and pretend we care about values we’re unwilling to adopt and publicly support. If we mean what we say about championing children interests, then adopting the CRC is the right thing to do.

President Obama, don’t leave office without sending this Treaty on to the Senate. Do it now.Children sickened by tobacco, children working illegally in America’s fields, children whose lives are on hold and live threatened by deportation, a world where the value and rights of children are ignored by the greatest democracy on earth. Is this the world we want for our children?

“Words and actions matter… With every word we utter and every action we take, we know our kids are watching us. “Michelle Obama

Len Morris of Media Voices for Children received the Iqbal Masih Award from the Department of Labor in 2012 for his work to end the worst forms of child labor.

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Tobacco harvester — A five-most-dangerous job for teens

 A 12-year-old cannot legally buy cigarettes in the U.S., but they are allowed to work in a tobacco field for 10- to 12- hours a day in 100-degree heat and suffer repeated bouts of nicotine poisoning. This is legal because of decades-old exemptions to U.S. child labor laws that apply to agriculture. Teen tobacco workers do not die at the highest rate, but they do feel as if they are dying in large numbers.


A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, “Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming,” published in May 2014 found that three quarters of 141 child tobacco workers interviewed in North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee—the main tobacco-producing states—reported getting sick while working on U.S. tobacco farms. Many of their symptoms—nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, and dizziness—are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning (also known as “Green Tobacco Sickness”.) A frequent comment from child tobacco workers who experience this illness is, “I thought I was going to die.”

Child tobacco workers often use dangerous, sharp tools and can work in tobacco drying barns at heights without protective equipment as they balance precariously on the top of wood beams that may be only one or two inches thick.

In addition to nicotine, farmworker children may also be absorbing a range of toxic pesticides commonly used in tobacco fields. Children often wear black garbage bags to protect them from these dual exposures but you can imagine what it’s like to wear a plastic bag in the 90- and 100-degree temperatures often found in tobacco fields.

To make matters worse, Human Rights Watch found that 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. Most of the children interviewed by HRW were not provided with hand washing facilities or toilets, and some were not given sufficient drinking water.  The absence of hand washing facilities significantly increases the risks of nicotine and pesticide exposure.

Using information from the OSHA Integrated Management Information System, HRW reports that 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, said HRW researchers.

The situation, with children as young as 12 (and HRW found about a dozen kids conducting lighter work in the fields who were under 12), is so absurd that it proved to be great material for the satirists at “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” who produced an entertaining, but alarming, report called “Nicoteens.” The clip is comical and allows you to hear young tobacco workers describing the work conditions in their own words, but child labor in U.S. tobacco is not funny. It’s embarrassing.

We share here the words of a 14-year-old girl who worked in tobacco fields (from an HRW interview) and suffered nicotine poisoning:

“My head started hurting, and I kind of felt like throwing up.” [The tobacco plants were dripping wet from dew and rain, and her clothes got soaked while she worked in fields.] “I just go home in my wet clothes.”  

In 2011, the Obama Administration acted to implement regulations to protect working children from farm dangers, including tobacco work, but those rules were withdrawn in 2012 because of opposition from the farm community, and it appeared to NCL, fears that the controversial rules might cost Senate seats. Child Labor Coalition (CLC) members fought hard for those comprehensive protections, but health and safety advocates were no match for the resources of the agricultural lobby.

The wholesale withdrawal of occupational child safety regulations for farms left child workers in tobacco vulnerable to nicotine poisoning, pesticide poisoning, and other dangers. It’s time to fix this glaring consequence of the Administration’s complete pullback—it’s abdication of its responsibilities to protect children—and move forward to protect children in tobacco fields. In August 2014, the CLC sent President Obama a letter signed by 50 groups, representing millions of Americans, asking him to take action, but the President has been silent.

Congress is trying to respond with the “Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms” bill in both the House (HR 1848) and Senate (S 974) that would ban child labor in U.S. tobacco. NCL joined the Child Labor Coalition, which it co-chairs, and 56 other organizations to urge members of Congress to support the legislation in an open letter to Congress in May 2015.

NCL continues to wonder why the Obama Administration is not doing more to deal with the problem of children performing this hazardous work. Earlier this year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released a recommended practices bulletin with guidance on reducing the hazards for tobacco workers. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) convened a meeting with several NGOs including NCL, CLC, and 16 members of the tobacco industry to discuss responses to the problem of children working in tobacco fields. So far, however, the Administration has taken no significant steps to protect children working in tobacco fields.

Several tobacco companies and two grower associations have acknowledged the danger of this work and its inappropriateness for young workers. The tobacco companies have implemented policies to prohibit the growers they use from hiring children under 16. The 2015 harvest was the first year that the new rules were applied and it is unclear how well the new policies are working or if they are working at all. NCL and its Child Labor Coalition partners continue to advocate for a ban on all child work in tobacco because of its dangers.

In 2015, HRW issued a follow-up report, “Teens of the Tobacco Fields—Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming” focusing on 16- and 17-year-old tobacco workers whose labor was not addressed by tobacco company policies and whose work, although dangerous, goes on because the U.S. government abandoned its attempt to designate the work as “hazardous.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 26 children, ages 16 and 17, who worked on tobacco farms in North Carolina in 2015 and found:

“Almost all of the children interviewed—25 out of 26—said they experienced sickness, pain, and discomfort while working. Most children interviewed experienced the sudden onset of at least one specific symptom consistent with acute nicotine poisoning while working in tobacco farming in 2015, or after returning home from working in tobacco fields, including nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, and lightheadedness.

Many children also reported either working in or near fields that were being sprayed with pesticides, or re-entering fields that had been sprayed very recently. A number of children reported immediate illness after coming into contact with pesticides.”

A young farmworker in the US during the tobacco harvest (photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch)

A young farmworker in the US during the tobacco harvest (photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch)


44 Groups Sign-On to CLC Letter Asking Major Tobacco Companies for Better Wages, Collective Bargaining for US Farmworkers and Expansion of the Dunlop Commission Process

[Child Labor Coalition letter mailed May 4, 2015 to Reynolds American Inc., Phillip Morris International, and British American Tobacco]
On June 24, 2014, a collection of organizations representing millions of Americans, including teachers, healthcare professionals, workers, farmworkers, and advocates concerned about children working in the tobacco fields wrote an open letter to the tobacco industry, outlining a number of steps that must be taken to eliminate child labor from tobacco supply chains.

We are heartened that Reynolds American has expressed interest in implementing stronger policies to end child labor in tobacco fields. However, as we noted in our letter, enacting higher standards is only a portion of the solution. To truly address the problem of child labor in tobacco, effective reporting mechanisms must be established in the fields, and adult workers must receive wages that allow them to support their families and send their children to school rather than work.

This is why we are writing you again, in support of efforts by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) to establish a system for tobacco farm workers in North Carolina to negotiate for better wages, improved working conditions, and establish a committee that can resolve issues for tobacco workers and growers when they arise. We ask that you sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with FLOC to negotiate recognition of the Dunlop Commission regarding tobacco growers and farmworkers in your supply chain. The Dunlop Commission has been successful in the past in establishing a private system of union recognition and dispute resolution between corporations, growers and workers. The Commission would set out rules and regulations, with participation of all sides, to mediate differences and address the long-term challenges workers and their families face in the tobacco industry. The expansion of the Dunlop Commission proposed by FLOC establishes field-based monitoring and resolution systems for labor rights abuses, including child labor, and makes provisions for remedies when appropriate. This would be an important counterpart to your increased commitments to end child labor.

Tobacco harvesting is hazardous work unsuitable for children, whose bodies and brains are still developing. Research has found that children working in tobacco are especially vulnerable to nicotine poisoning (green tobacco sickness), cancer, health problems from pesticide exposure, injuries from working with dangerous tools and climbing significant heights in curing barns, and respiratory problems from breathing tobacco dust. Most of the workers in the field do not expose their children to these hazards willingly, but out of necessity because of the low wages paid to tobacco harvesters. A 2010 study conducted by Oxfam America found that a quarter of workers surveyed in North Carolina—22 out of 86—were paid less than the federally mandated minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and 57 workers said that their pay was not enough to meet their basic needs. Furthermore, it found that tobacco pricing mechanisms made it difficult for growers to provide adequately for field workers.

While training, education, regulations, and standards are all important pieces to solve problems in the tobacco supply chain, we believe that higher wages and improved working conditions obtained through a collective bargaining process are critical elements to a solution that leads to the elimination of child labor. Guaranteed the right to negotiate directly to improve conditions in the fields, farmworkers will be able to engage with the appropriate parties to be part of the solution to address labor issues. This approach will provide much more sustainable changes than any top-down approach and empower tobacco growing communities to address the root causes of child labor.

With this in mind, we urge you to boost your efforts to combat child labor by signing an agreement with FLOC to participate in the Dunlop Commission process. The Child Labor Coalition (CLC), its 35 members, and the additional 44 groups that have signed on in support of this letter await a positive response and will continue to be in contact until this issue is resolved. You can reach Reid Maki, CLC coordinator, at 202-207-2820 if you would like to discuss this letter and our support for the farmworker efforts.

1.            9to52.            American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)

3.            American Federation of Teachers

4.            Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs

5.            Beyond Borders

6.            California Institute for Rural Studies

7.            Catholic Migrant Farmworker Network

8.            Center for Latino Progress

9.            Delaware Ecumenical Council on Children and Families

10.         Disciples Home Missions

11.         Disciples Refugee and Immigration Ministries

12.         Disciples Women

13.         Dominicans Sisters and Associates of Peace

14.         El Comite de Apoyo a Los Trabajadores Agricolas

15.         Farm Worker Ministry – NorthWest

16.         Farmworker Association of Florida

17.         Farmworker Justice

18.         Food Chain Workers Alliance

19.         Free The Slaves

20.         International Brotherhood of the Teamsters

21.         International Labor Rights Forum

22.         Jobs with Justice

23.         Latino Advocacy Coalition of Henderson County

24.         League of United Latin American Citizens

25.         Lorretto Community

26.         Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety & Health

27.         Media Voices for Children

28.         Migrant Clinicians Network

29.         National Consumers League

30.         National Education Association

31.         National Farm Worker Ministry

32.         Oxfam America

33.         Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)

34.         Puente de la Costa Sur

35.         Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Western Province Leadership

36.         Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Dubuque, Iowa

37.         The Episcopal Church

38.         The Ramsay Merriam Fund

39.         The United Methodist Church – General Board of Church and Society

40.         United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries

41.         United Food & Commercial Workers International Union

42.         United Mine Workers of America

43.         West Hills Friends Church (Quaker)

44.         Youth and Young Adult Network of the National Farm Worker Ministry


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, benk@nclnet.org(202) 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.


NATIONAL CONSUMERS LEAGUE PRESS RELEASE : Move to ban youth work in Virginia tobacco fields welcome by advocates

ap-tobacco-farm-lgFor immediate release: January 21, 2015
Contact: NCL Communications, Ben Klein, (202) 835-3323, benk@nclnet.org

Washington, DC—Last week’s introduction of a bill in the Virginia state legislature to prohibit children under the age of 18 from working in direct contact with tobacco is a hopeful sign in the continued fight to eradicate the practice of youth work in American tobacco fields.

The bill, HB1906, was introduced by Delegate Alfonso Lopez (Democrat-Arlington) and would include an exemption for family farms. If passed, HB1906 would be 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.

“Children picking tobacco regularly suffer nicotine poisoning, toxic pesticide exposure, and work at dangerous heights,” 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. “We are encouraged by Delegate Lopez’ introduction of HB1906, and we hope this is a sign of things to come. We urge Virginia lawmakers to support this bill, and other tobacco-producing states to follow suit to protect America’s most vulnerable workers—children in tobacco fields.”

In the last year, advocates from NCL, the CLC, and its member organizations, have sought to raise public awareness on youth harvesting tobacco. More than 50 groups have signed onto a series of letters to Congress, industry, and the Obama Administration. In September, Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) circulated a sign-on letter to House members asking the Department of Labor to take narrowly-focused regulatory action to protect children from dangerous tobacco fields. In December, Phillip Morris USA’s parent company Altria, the largest U.S. tobacco manufacturer, announced that it would require its suppliers to prohibit children under 16 years of age from working in their tobacco fields. NCL praised the company for taking a leadership role on this important issue and called on others to follow.

“Because our laws are not currently protecting them from this dangerous work, children who harvest tobacco have no choice but to try to protect themselves, wearing garbage bags to minimize skin contact with harmful residues,” said Reid Maki, NCL’s director of child labor advocacy and the coordinator of the CLC. “We applaud Delegate Lopez for taking this first step in Virginia to protect these vulnerable child workers. We encourage his colleagues to stand with him, against the pressure of big agriculture and some in the tobacco industry, for the sake of these young workers.”


About the National Consumers League
The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization and a co-chair of the Child Labor Coaltion. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit https://www.nclnet.org.


CHILD LABOR COALITION PRESS RELEASE: 50 Groups Urge President Obama to Take Action to Protect Child Tobacco Workers in the US

(Washington, DC) Fifty US-based organizations called on President Obama to protect children in US tobacco farming in a letter released today. The letter, issued by the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) and 15 other groups, expressed alarm that children are risking acute nicotine poisoning, pesticide poisoning, and other health and safety hazards in US tobacco fields and asked the president to take a narrowly-tailored regulatory action to protect child workers who are allowed by current labor law to work in tobacco fields at the age of 12.

The letter, signed by organizations, representing millions of teachers, healthcare professionals, workers, farmworkers, and advocates concerned about the safety, education, and welfare of children, also asks the president to call on the Department of Labor to conduct targeted field investigations to ensure that no children under 12 are working in the fields illegally.

A recent report, “Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming,” by Human Rights Watch found that of 141 child tobacco workers interviewed in North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, three-quarters reported getting sick while working on US tobacco farms. Many of their symptoms—nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, and dizziness—are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning (also known as “Green Tobacco Sickness”).

“Children in the US can’t legally buy cigarettes, but children working in tobacco fields are suffering acute nicotine poisoning,” said Sally Greenberg, co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) and executive director of the National Consumers League. “We urge the president to take immediate action to protect America’s most vulnerable workers—children in tobacco fields.”

“Child tobacco workers reported working long hours, often in extreme heat and without protective gear,” noted Dr. Lorretta Johnson, co-chair of the CLC and the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. “Unfortunately, child labor is a common practice in the United States, and it’s legal. We stand with Human Rights Watch, the CLC and many others to call attention to the great dangers faced by children working on tobacco farms. We urge the administration to take measures to end hazardous child labor in tobacco farming.”

Under US law, children as young as 12 can work for hire on any farm with their parent’s permission. Even younger children can work on small farms.

“Agriculture is already the most dangerous area of employment open to children in the US,” said Norma Flores López, the director of the Children in the Fields Campaign for the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs and the chair of the CLC’s domestic issues committee. “Tobacco farming is particularly hazardous because of nicotine exposure and toxic pesticides.  We worry about children developing cancer—and neurological and reproductive health problems—linked to the exposure of toxic pesticides. We also need to prevent injuries from working with machinery and dangerous tools, lifting heavy loads, and climbing to significant heights in curing barns.”

The letter to the president also calls on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue “health hazard alerts” so that employers will know how they might mitigate risks of nicotine poisoning for their employees. And it cites the need for better data collection to allow an accurate count of the number of children who currently work in US tobacco fields and other farms.

In June, the CLC sent a letter to the top 10 tobacco companies signed by over 50 organizations, asking for voluntary action to limit tobacco work in the fields. Thus far, no concrete actions to remove children from tobacco fields have been initiated by the companies.

In 2011, the Obama Administration acted to implement regulations to protect working children from farm dangers, including tobacco work, but those rules were withdrawn because of opposition from the farm community. “The wholesale withdrawal of occupational child safety regulations for farms left child workers in tobacco vulnerable to nicotine poisoning, pesticide poisoning, and other dangers. It’s time to fix this glaring consequence of the administration’s complete pullback and move forward to protect children in tobacco fields,” said Reid Maki, CLC coordinator.

Today’s letter to the president with a full list of signers can be found here.


For immediate release: August 28, 2014
Contact: Norma Flores Lopez, (202) 828-6006×106, flores@afop.org or Reid Maki, (202) 207-2820


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.

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CLC Press Release: Ban Child Labor in US Tobacco Fields

For immediate release: November 22, 2013
Contact: Reid Maki, (202) 207-2820, reidm@nclnet.org

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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Human Rights Watch’s Zama Coursen-Neff on The Hidden Victims of Tobacco

The smoking habits of the presidential candidates keep coming up: Barack Obama’s efforts to quit, Mitt Romney’s abstention. Romney signed a ban on smoking in bars, restaurants, and indoor workplaces in Massachusetts in 2004; President Obama signed a law in 2009 that broadly restricts marketing cigarettes to children. Far less attention, however, is being paid to the nicotine exposure of children who work alongside adults cultivating and harvesting tobacco.

In eastern North Carolina I’ve interviewed children as young as 14 who worked in tobacco, and recent news reports describe children as young as nine and 10. Fifteen-year-old “Elena” is typical. She would get up at 3 a.m. to make lunches, she said, then go up and down the rows removing flowers from tobacco plants for 12 or more hours a day. “It smells of chemicals and it gives you a headache,” she told me. “Sometimes I feel like vomiting… We can’t get sick because then we can’t work.”

With no paid sick days or job security, and frequent violations of minimum wage laws, Elena echoed the worries of many working teens I spoke with. “We have to go into the fields just to get our bills paid, not to get what we want,” said a 15-year-old worker. “As I child I knew not to ask [for things I wanted].” Total annual farmworker family incomes average less than $17,500, and in some areas far less.

Elena’s sickness may have been more than an inconvenience. A 17-year-old tobacco worker told me: “They sprayed the field next to us yesterday. My head hurt. I could smell it, it blew. We kept working. People say this can hurt you. I’m a little, a little worried about it.” Children, whose bodies are still developing, are uniquely vulnerable to chemicals and may absorb pesticides more easily than adults. Long-term pesticide exposure is associated with cancer, brain damage, and reproductive problems.

But Elena may have also been sickened by the plants themselves. Workers absorb tobacco through the skin, especially when the leaves are wet, when the person is working hard, and when surrounding temperatures are hot. According to one study, on a humid day the average field worker may be exposed to dew containing roughly the nicotine of 36 cigarettes. This nicotine poisoning is known as “green tobacco sickness,” and children are more vulnerable than adults.

A 17-year-old worker described symptoms consistent with poisoning: “It’s hard to say what hurts the worst,” he said. “My legs hurt, my head hurts… I feel dizzy and then my nose is bleeding.”

Rain gear and water-tight gloves can protect workers but also increase the risk of heat exhaustion and dehydration. None of the children I interviewed mentioned wearing protective clothing. A 15-year-old boy said he wore a trash bag like poncho — others did not even wear gloves.

These children — mostly poor and Hispanic — are among the hundreds of thousands of children hired to work in U.S. agriculture. They exercise little political clout but deserve the protection from American politicians that all other working children already enjoy.

Remarkably, many of these children are working legally under a loophole in U.S. child labor laws. Federal law provides no minimum age for work on small farms with parental permission, and children ages 12 and up may work for hire on any size farm for unlimited periods outside school hours. Children not working in agriculture must be at least 14. Even then, the jobs they can perform and their hours are tightly restricted. Farmwork is the most hazardous occupation open to children. Under federal law, child farmworkers can also do jobs at 16 that the U.S. Department of Labor deems “particularly hazardous” for children, such as driving a forklift or operating a chainsaw — jobs no one under 18 can do anywhere else.

Only Congress can change the law and give children working for hire in agriculture the same protections all other working children have. But the Labor Department tried last year to update, for the first time in decades, the list of hazardous jobs, and to add tobacco to the list, along with other specific farm tasks that experts say are most likely to kill, sicken, and maim children. Although family farms were completely exempt, the Farm Bureau and several members of Congress claimed incorrectly that they would keep children from working at all and hurt family farms and agricultural training. Romney criticized the administration for, he said, telling farmers what their children could and couldn’t do on a farm. The pressure on the department — and the misinformation — was intense, and the administration withdrew the proposed rules.

In the upcoming campaign season, much attention will be focused on small things, like who smokes and who doesn’t. But America’s youngest, and poorest, workforce shouldn’t be forgotten. Leaders should promise to amend U.S. child labor law to provide the same protections to all working children.

Zama Coursen-Neff directs the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch and is the author of Fields of Peril: Child Labor in U.S. Agriculture.

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

Follow Zama Coursen-Neff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ZamaHRW

Human Rights Watch is a member of the Child Labor Coalition