Dems Urge Rules Against Child Labor in U.S. Tobacco Fields

09 30 2014 FLOCTobaccoTour 624
Pictured left to right, Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) President Baldemar Velasquez, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and British Members of Parliament Ian Lavery and James Sheridan tour a North Carolina tobacco field to speak with farmworkers during FLOC’s summer 2014 “Respect, Recognition, Raise!” organizing campaign. (Credit: FLOC)

Reps. David Cicilline (D-RI) and Matt Cartwright (D-PA) have urged the Labor Department to implement rules that prohibit child workers on U.S. tobacco farms.

The move comes just weeks after a New York Times report on the ongoing problem of children working in tobacco fields in the South.

In a letter to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, Cicilline and Cartwright called on the department to address the issue.

“We urge you to issue a proposed rule dealing solely with child labor on tobacco farms which would prohibit children from working in the cultivation or curing of tobacco,” wrote the lawmakers.

The New York Times article tells the story of 13-year-old Saray, who works 12-hour shifts on a North Carolina tobacco field. She and the other children she works with cover their bodies with black plastic garbage bags to protect their skin from the “green tobacco sickness,” caused from the nicotine dripping from the early morning dewed tobacco leaves.

“Public health experts say hundreds of children under 16 like Saray continue to work in America’s tobacco fields,” reads the article. “Dr. Thomas A. Arcury, an expert on tobacco and migrant workers and a professor at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, said tobacco work was particularly harmful to children, pointing to nicotine poisoning, pesticides and dehydration.”

A May 2014 report by Human Rights Watch also shed some much-needed light on the problem.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) of the AFL-CIO says the only way to remedy to issue of child labor and other horrendous abuses that plague the tobacco industry in through collective bargaining. During the summer of 2014, the group kicked off the “Respect, Recognition, Raise!” campaign – a major effort to organize 5,000 tobacco farmworkers in North Carolina.

“Right now, only a small percentage of farmworkers in North Carolina – around 7,000 – are covered by a FLOC union contract,” reads the campaign website. “In order to build pressure on the tobacco companies, that have the power to eliminate human rights abuses in their supply chains, we need to build our union’s strength and presence throughout the state.  This will be achieved by adding thousands of new members who are ready to fight for fair and safe living and working conditions.”

For more on the campaign, visit the “Respect, Recognition, Raise!” website.