Few people realize that in 2014 child labor is still a major concern in the United States. Even fewer people realize a significant amount of that concern is centered around children working in tobacco farms in the South.
Under U.S. law, children under the age of 18 can’t buy cigarettes, but they can legally work in tobacco fields.
According to a recent NPR report, children starting as young as age 12 are hired by contractors who provide labor to southern growers. It’s not clear just how many children work on tobacco farms and how widespread the problem is because no one keeps track. Congress has so far resisted changing farm labor laws; and in 2012, the Department of Labor withdrew a proposal for stricter standards under political pressure.
Independent international advocacy organization, Human Rights Watch, is calling on Big Tobacco to get kids out of the fields. Their recent report, in which they interviewed more than 140 children, shows tobacco farms are extremely hazardous to child workers.
“In the mornings, tobacco is wet because of the dew and the rows are narrow and the tobacco is really big,” said 15-year-old Eddie Ramirez, who’s been working 12-hour days in North Carolina tobacco fields since he was 12, to help support his family who came to the U.S. from Honduras. “You just feel like you’re suffocating or can’t breathe really well. You just want to stop and not do it no more.”
“We found that the overwhelming majority of kids we interviewed got sick while they were working in tobacco fields with nausea, headaches, dizziness, lightheadedness,” says Human Rights Watch researcher Margaret Wurth. “And many of the symptoms they reported are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, which happens when workers absorb nicotine through their skin.”
Child labor in the tobacco industry is not new, says the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) of the AFL-CIO. FLOC released a statement saying the Human Rights Report is an opportunity to shed light on ongoing efforts to organize tobacco farmworkers.
“There is only one way to remedy the problem of child labor and other horrendous abuses that plague the tobacco industry,” said FLOC. “That remedy is that tobacco manufacturers guarantee freedom of association and collective bargaining rights for tobacco farmworkers. We can push for tougher laws or stronger company policies, but the reality is that child labor won’t end until families are able to negotiate better wages so that children don’t have to work in the fields to help sustain their family. Child labor won’t end until farmworkers themselves have a safe and effective way to speak out when abuses happen, without fearing retaliation from their employer. This can only happen when workers have a recognized voice in the work place.”
“In two weeks, FLOC will be launching the largest organizing drive since Cesar Chavez to call on America’s tobacco giants to recognize their collective voice,” continued FLOC. “Five-thousand new farmworker union members across North Carolina and Kentucky will be speaking out against human rights violations such as child labor, while working together to negotiate fair wages, better housing conditions, and safe and healthy work places.”