Obama urged to ban child labor

| August 4, 2016

A letter signed by 110 groups representing tens of millions of US citizens is urging President Obama to ban child labor in US tobacco before he leaves office.

“Children should not be harvesting a crop that routinely makes them sick from nicotine poisoning,” said Sally Greenberg, co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) and the executive director of the National Consumers League (NCL). “In 2012, under strong pressure from the agriculture lobby, the Obama administration withdrew long-overdue occupational protections for child farmworkers that would have banned child labor in tobacco while providing a host of life-saving protections. We call on President Obama to rectify this decision and at last protect child tobacco workers from the dangers of nicotine poisoning.”

A press note that accompanied the letter said that when on May 5 the Federal Drug Administration announced new regulations prohibiting the sale of electronic cigarettes to children, the Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell had stated, ‘We’ve agreed for many years that nicotine does not belong in the hands of children”. Despite this concern, the note said, the Obama Administration had not yet taken appropriate steps to protect child tobacco workers from nicotine poisoning in the fields.

“If Brazil and India can ban child tobacco work, the US can too,” said Norma Flores López, chair of the CLC’s Domestic Issues Committee. “We call on the Obama Administration to take action on behalf of powerless child tobacco workers because it is the right thing to do. Weak child labor laws in US agriculture make protecting child tobacco workers especially critical.”

Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, which produced in May 2014 the ground-breaking study Tobacco’s Hidden Children – Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming, said that a 12-year old could work 50 or 60 hours a week on a US tobacco farm – as long as it was not during school hours – and it would be perfectly legal. “Before the end of his term, President Obama should take action to ban this hazardous work for children.”

The health reasons for such a child-labor ban were incontrovertible, said the CEO of Migrant Clinicians Network, Karen Mountain. “In US tobacco fields, workers of any age are susceptible to green tobacco sickness, an acute nicotine poisoning from handling tobacco plants, which results in vomiting, nausea, headaches, and dizziness,” she said. “Children may be even more susceptible to green tobacco sickness, due to their smaller body size.”

Mountain added that whereas the long-term effects of this type of nicotine exposure were unclear, smoking tobacco during adolescence was well known to cause numerous adverse long-term health effects including cancer.

Meanwhile, Dr. Lorretta Johnson, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers and co-chair of the CLC said that children performing hazardous work in US tobacco fields comprised a particular concern. By allowing children to do this dangerous work at ages as young as 12, the US was in violation of UN Convention 182, which sought to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. “The President can act to protect these children by closing the door to dangerous work,” she said. “We want to help children succeed in school, not make them sick from nicotine poisoning and exhausted from back-breaking labor in tobacco fields.”

The note said that during the past two years, the tobacco industry had adopted stronger policies to address child labor concerns. ‘The two largest tobacco-growing associations, as well as the two largest US-based tobacco companies, including Philip Morris International, have stated that they would welcome stronger regulations to back up their voluntary policies,’ it said. ‘Many in the non-profit community doubt the capacity of the industry to monitor its fields.

‘The NGO tobacco sign-on letter asks the Obama administration to collect better data on the prevalence of child labor and to conduct targeted enforcement of labor practices to make sure current law is not being broken and both child and adult workers receive the labor protections they are due.’

“The tobacco industry itself recognizes the potential harm to children working tobacco so we don’t believe a ban would elicit a strong backlash from the agricultural community,” said Reid Maki, NCL’s director of child labor advocacy. “A 12-year-old can’t smoke, the public understands that minors should not be absorbing nicotine and getting poisoned while harvesting a crop that has killed millions of Americans.”

Category: Breaking News

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