Children working on tobacco farms in the U.S. are exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides and other dangers, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released yesterday.
“While U.S. law prohibits the sale of tobacco products to children, children can legally work on tobacco farms in the U.S.,” HRW said in a press note announcing the report. “The world’s largest tobacco companies buy tobacco grown on U.S. farms, but none have child labor policies that sufficiently protect children from hazardous work.”
The 138-page report, Tobacco’s hidden children: Hazardous child labor in US tobacco farming, documents conditions for children working on tobacco farms in four states where 90 percent of U.S. tobacco is grown: North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.
“Children reported vomiting, nausea, headaches and dizziness while working on tobacco farms, all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning,” HRW said. “Many also said they worked long hours without overtime pay, often in extreme heat without shade or sufficient breaks, and wore no, or inadequate, protective gear.”
The report is based on interviews with 141 child tobacco workers, ages 7 to 17.
“As the school year ends, children are heading into the tobacco fields, where they can’t avoid being exposed to dangerous nicotine, without smoking a single cigarette,” said Margaret Wurth, children’s rights researcher at HRW and co-author of the report. “It’s no surprise the children exposed to poisons in the tobacco fields are getting sick.”
Children working in tobacco farming faced other serious risks as well, HRW said. “They may use dangerous tools and machinery, lift heavy loads and climb several stories without protection to hang tobacco in barns,” it added. “Children also reported that tractors sprayed pesticides in nearby fields. They said the spray drifted over them, making them vomit, feel dizzy and have difficulty breathing and a burning sensation in their eyes.”
The full report is at http://hrw.org/node/125316.
Meanwhile, Philip Morris International welcomed the HRW report and made the point that the abuses uncovered on farms in the U.S. should not occur anywhere.
“This report uncovers serious child labor abuses that should not occur on any farm, anywhere,” said CEO André Calantzopoulos in a note posted on PMI’s website. “Human Rights Watch acknowledges the work PMI has done to address these issues through our Agricultural Labor Practices (ALP) global program to reach nearly half a million smallholder farmers. However, more work remains to be done to eliminate child and other labor abuses in tobacco growing. We are grateful to Human Rights Watch for bringing these issues to light, recognizing the steps we have made to constructively engaging with others to find real and lasting solutions.”
PMI’s response is at http://www.pmi.com/eng/media_center/press_releases/Pages/201405140648.aspx.
This is not a new story. In November, a report by Gabriel Thompson and Mariya Strauss for The Nation warned that, in the U.S., children as young as 12 were allowed to work on tobacco farms, performing backbreaking labor and putting their health and lives at risk.
And it is by no means confined to the U.S. According to a piece by Jill Stark published in the Sydney Morning Herald in October, Australia’s cigarette trade was “propped up by the exploitation of children.” Stark wrote that “new figures” had revealed that $16 million worth of tobacco was imported annually from countries where “cheap child labor” was used to produce the crop.