The Ugly Truth of the U.S. Child Labor Behind the Tobacco Industry
A new report by Human Rights Watch called Tobacco’s Hidden Children details the appalling cost to the children who are working on U.S. tobacco farms — and how this child labor is usually perfectly legal.
About 90 percent of tobacco grown in the United States comes from four states: North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Nearly all of the tobacco grown in the country ends up in the global tobacco supply chain, used by companies from America and across Europe, as well as China and Japan. Typically tobacco grown in the United States supplies cigarette brands like Marlboro, Newport, Camel and Pall Mall.
While in the United States it is illegal to buy tobacco products if you are below the age of 18, children as young as 7 have been known to work on tobacco farms (the minimum employment age is 14 or over in most other sectors) where they are regularly interacting with tobacco plants and the pesticides used to keep those plants healthy.
To investigate what life is like for children who work in tobacco farms, and indeed why they’re choosing to do this work, Human Rights Watch embarked on a data gathering mission. Between May and October 2013, Human Rights Watch interviewed 141 child tobacco workers (aged between 7-17) who worked in the states mentioned above during 2012 or 2013.
Why are Children Turning to Tobacco Picking?
Put simply: poverty. Hispanic children from immigrant families tended to make up the majority of those in the sample (though many were naturalized citizens). Their parents and siblings often also worked on the tobacco farms. These aren’t family owned farms, they’re owned by tobacco industry companies. Regardless of whether the families had other employment, the children reported working due to needing to support their families for obtaining things like clothing and items for school.
Most children interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they’d started work at 13, which again is below the usual minimum age for employment in the United States. They tended to be seasonal workers who were already living in the states where tobacco was grown. They worked on farms near their homes, usually in the summer months when tobacco is being grown and tended.
What Does Tobacco Farming Involve?
Child tobacco workers often labor 50 or 60 hours a week, which is far greater than the hours that are usually allowed for children. In addition, the work is often labor intensive and, because of the conditions tobacco needs to grow well, means working in sometimes hot and unforgiving conditions.
Just some of the jobs the children must perform include planting seedlings, weeding, applying pesticides (more on that below), harvesting tobacco leaves, using sharp knives or other dangerous wooden or metal implements to cut the plants and move them, and stripping and sorting dried tobacco leaves.
As you may have guessed, this means the children must face extended periods of time working with the tobacco plants, and sometimes working in close confines with the dried tobacco leaves. They also face working with pesticides at a young age and while the farms do give training on using pesticides and it is often said that children kept away from these more dangerous practices, the fact remains that at the very least children are exposed to crops that may be newly treated. Obviously, this could and does have an impact on the child workers’ health.
What are the Associated Health Risks?
Human Rights Watch’s interviews with child tobacco farm workers found that many of the children reported symptoms that have the hallmarks of nicotine poisoning — sadly, this isn’t surprising. Adult farm workers often have to deal with the condition due to absorbing nicotine through their skin after prolonged exposure. Given that children are still developing though, there may be added dangers.
The common symptoms of acute nicotine exposure include headaches, dizziness and vomiting. Among the children interviewed, a sizable proportion reported having suffered at least some of these symptoms. Human Rights Watch notes that there’s currently no research into the long-term effects of exposure to nicotine through contact. We do know that research shows that smoking in our teens years creates a variety of health problems, not least of which are potentially raising the odds of some cancers and impairing brain development. We cannot say that nicotine exposure through skin contact will do the same, but the very fact that the children are reporting the milder symptoms suggests that they are exposed to high enough levels of nicotine to cause problems for the body, which is a worry in itself.
Furthermore, the children also reported working in fields close to where farmers spray pesticides. As a result, they reported developing a number of pesticide exposure symptoms. In some cases, those symptoms overlap with acute nicotine exposure but some were distinct and signaled pesticide exposure, for instance burning eyes, burning noses, itchy skin, shortness of breath, redness and swelling of the mouth. The headaches that also came from these exposures lasted several days in some cases.
In addition to the health problems outlined above, children risk cuts and even serious puncture wounds as a result of using sharp implements. Climbing to dangerous heights while tending the drying tobacco which is stored in large barns is also a danger.
How Widespread is the Problem?
That’s hard to gauge, because there isn’t a wide-scale data gathering effort surrounding tobacco workers, and so the exact numbers of children (and adults) affected is unclear. What Human Rights Watch appears to be arguing is that, even if just one child is suffering under what would otherwise be illegal employment, that’s one too many.
What’s Being Done About this Child Labor Problem?
Human Rights Watch notes that few of the industry labels implicated in this report have comprehensive child labor/protection policies. While all the firms have expressed concerns about child labor in their supply chain, there appears little appetite in the industry as a whole to ban child labor, with many falling back on the US’ child labor laws which, experts say, do not necessarily cover children in these circumstances because what amounts to “light labor” and “hazardous labor” can be disputed.
The exception to this is Philip Morris International (PMI) which has a very strict code about its labor practices, and lists a specific number of activities that children working on its farms cannot do — namely, those which cause long-term exposure to mature tobacco leaves, as well as other hazardous activities.
The Human Rights Watch report concludes that children under the age of 18 should not be allowed to come into direct contact with tobacco of any form, whether that’s the plants themselves or the dried tobacco leaves. HRW is also calling for a cooperative effort between Congress, tobacco manufacturers and leaf supply companies to take urgent steps to prevent young children from engaging in hazardous work on tobacco farms.