Made in the U.S.A: Child labour on tobacco farms from ages 7

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 :: Staff infoZine
Children working on tobacco farms in the United States are exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, and other dangers, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Video
Washington DC – infoZine – While US law prohibits the sale of tobacco products to children, children can legally work on tobacco farms in the US. The world’s largest tobacco companies buy tobacco grown on US 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 US 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. 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.

“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 Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “It’s no surprise the children exposed to poisons in the tobacco fields are getting sick.”

The report is based on interviews with 141 child tobacco workers, ages seven to 17 (view infographic link).

Children working in tobacco farming face other serious risks as well, Human Rights Watch said. They may use dangerous tools and machinery, lift heavy loads, and climb several stories without protection to hang tobacco in barns. 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.

Many of the pesticides used in tobacco production are known neurotoxins, poisons that alter the nervous system. The long-term effects of childhood pesticide exposure can include cancer, problems with learning and cognition, and reproductive health issues.Children are especially vulnerable because their bodies and brains are still developing.Human Rights Watch sent letters to 10 US and global tobacco companies and met with many of them to encourage these companies to adopt policies, or strengthen existing policies, to prevent hazardous child labor in their supply chains.
“Tobacco companies shouldn’t benefit from hazardous child labor,” Wurth said. “They have a responsibility to adopt clear, comprehensive policies that get children out of dangerous work on tobacco farms, and make sure the farms follow the rules.”

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