I give my readers this history because there is much evidence about the toxicity of tobacco and the regulations that should be in place for anyone that works in a tobacco field, let alone children. However, a new report from Human Rights Watch paints a very grim picture of child labor in the United States, something that most Americans probably believe was banned years ago. Children as young as 7 are working on tobacco farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, and many are said to suffer from the symptoms of nicotine poisoning.
Human  Rights Watch interviewed approximately 140 children for their study. These stories show horrid flaws as to how America regulates child labor on farms. My understanding is that children are permitted to work on any farm, not just those owned by their families, outside school hours and in hazardous conditions, as long as they are 12 years old or older, if their parents work beside them. However, there are reports of children working as young as 7 or 8 years old. There is no set number of hours that they are restricted to work. During peak harvest time, some children work as many as 14 hours per day and earn far less than minimum wage. There is NO minimum wage for children working on a farm with parental permission. Absolutely amazing! Our government has far more restrictions in place for teenagers working in retail stores and restaurants.
I can certainly understand why parents would permit their children to work in the fields; they may be a single parent; they may have lost another position and need an extra income, etc. My mother was 8 years old when her father died; my uncle was 12. My mother cleaned houses and my uncle delivered eggs via bicycle to help my grandmother, who never spoke a word of English in the 1930’s, however, these were not dangerous or back breaking types of work. My mother pushing around a dust rag was not going to have a negative impact on her health. My uncle riding a bicycle after school, something he relished doing anyhow, was not going to impact his health….working in a tobacco field is far more rigorous work and far more dangerous. Agriculture, in general, is the most dangerous occupation open to children in the United States. They work with sharp tools, heavy machinery and dangerous chemicals…and they die at a rate of four (4) times other young workers. They are legally able to do hazardous work in agriculture from which they would be banned from any other industry….and country.
Other tobacco producing countries have banned any children under the age of 18 from working in any tobacco fields….this includes Brazil and India. In 2011, the Obama Administration’s labor secretary, Hilda Solis, proposed that work in tobacco fields be considered hazardous, making that type of work illegal for anyone under the age of 16. As a result of pressure from Republicans and the President’s re-election, the proposal was withdrawn.
Most of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch are the children of immigrants. The need to contribute to the family is sometimes enormous. Tobacco growers say that the practice of using young children is rare and that many growers decline to employ anyone under the age of 16. Human Watch found that the practice is still very prevalent here. Even as smoking has declined in the United States, North Carolina remains the nation’s largest producer of tobacco with roughly 1,800 tobacco farms employing 30,000 workers picking 400 million pounds of tobacco annually.
ABC News recently published information from the Associated Press stating that 35 House Democrats are urging the Obama administration to prohibit children from working on tobacco farms, citing concerns about ill health effects. Some of the children place plastic bags over their bodies with the intent of preventing ‘green tobacco sickness’, or nicotine poisoning. When it is raining, the children get water in their mouth and often feel dizzy and nauseous.
It is really time that something positive is done about this. Again, I can understand that family farms may need the children to pitch in and help but we don’t need to legislate the small family farm if children are picking potatoes in a plot outside the back door just as we don’t need to legislate a young boy or girl helping a parent bake a cake in a house or mow the lawn in a residential neighborhood anywhere. We do, however, need to legislate any mass producing farm that ‘hires’ children to do the work of an adult. Legislation was passed in this country back in the 1940’s to protect us all from these types of disgusting, obnoxious and egregious labor practices. Did we miss something along the way? www.hrw.org
Let’s all contact our representatives to see if we can get this changed…as soon as possible. children need to be children…child labor is of the past and it should remain there.
 ‘Children Don’t Belong in Tobacco Fields,’ The New York Times (May 17, 2014),http://nyti.ms/1jptuTV