A new report from Human Rights Watch paints a grim picture of child labor in the United States — something that most Americans probably believe was banned years ago.
Children as young as 7 are working on tobacco farms in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Many are said to suffer from symptoms of acute nicotine poisoning.
There are no good estimates of how many youngsters work on tobacco farms. Human Rights Watch interviewed 140 children, most of whom work alongside their parents, who are migrant farm workers, in the summer and on weekends. Their stories highlight glaring flaws in how America regulates child farm labor.
Under federal laws and rules, children can work on any farm — not just those owned by their families — outside school hours and in hazardous conditions, if their parents let them.
Some children interviewed by Human Rights Watch say they vomit, lose their appetites, have nausea, and suffer from headaches. They absorb nicotine through their skin when they handle tobacco leaves in the process of cutting, weeding, and harvesting plants.
Most cigarette companies do not insist that the farms they buy tobacco from refrain from employing children. In 2012, the Obama Administration abandoned regulations that would have restricted children younger than 16 from “participating in the cultivation, harvesting, and curing of tobacco” after Republican lawmakers opposed the proposal by falsely claiming the rules would keep children from working on family farms.
The Human Rights Watch report should be a loud alarm for the tobacco industry and lawmakers in Washington. Philip Morris International says it is working to eliminate the use of child labor for a list of hazardous tasks on the roughly 500,000 farms around the world from which it buys tobacco.
Cigarette companies should use their buying power to make sure tobacco growers stop hiring children under 18 to work in their fields. But the country cannot rely on industry promises.
Tobacco companies’ long history of marketing their products to teenagers offers good reason to question their commitments on health issues. Congress and the Obama Administration should change the law to restrict child labor in hazardous farm work.
— New York Times