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Child Labor on Tobacco Farms

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Human Rights Watch just released a powerful new report on the abuse of child labor on American tobacco farms. Children as young as the age of 7 are working on these farms, which are structured by individual farmers selling tobacco to the big companies like Philip Morris. While the tobacco companies do have general standards for the tobacco they buy, there’s no evidence they spend any time ensuring the farmers are living up to these standards. Not only are the children working 10-12 hours, mostly during the summer harvesting season but sometimes they aren’t going to school, but they are laboring in unsafe conditions. Sharp tools, machines, and rickety barns to dry to tobacco all make work unsafe for everyone, but especially children. Three-quarters of the children interviewed suffered symptoms of Green Tobacco Sickness, which is basically tobacco poisoning from handling the plants for long periods. These symptoms include dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Water, sanitary facilities, and shade are far too rare and southern summers are very hot and humid. Pesticide exposure is also a major problem on these farms.

As is typical of all agriculture in the United States, labor law is lagging. The failures of the Fair Labor Standards Act to apply to agriculture still leads to inequities and exploitation, although certainly not all of that falls on the people involved in the initial legislation since there has been 76 years to amend it. The FLSA does prohibit “hazardous” agricultural work for children under 16, but no labor on tobacco farms is classified that way. In 2011, the Department of Labor did propose updated hazardous work lists on the farms that would have taken children out of most tobacco work but an angry response from agricultural interests convinced the agency to withdraw the rule changes.

The states could do something. But not these states. Kentucky and Tennessee’s child labor law explicitly exclude agriculture and Virginia just follows federal guidelines. North Carolina lacks any child labor law at all. State laws on wages and hours do not apply to agricultural workers in any of these states.

Read the whole report for a lot of quotes from the interviews with the children.

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