By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
Yesterday, June 12th, marked World Day Against Child Labor. For this occasion I highlight the plight of young children employed to work in the tobacco agribusiness in the United States. It is estimated, by Deutsche Welle, that 500,000 children labor in this market; most are exposed to hazardous conditions ranging from exposure to high levels of nicotine and pesticides, farm implements, and long working hours among others. Variances in the standard federal child labor standards permit tobacco growers to employ children–some of whom are under twelve years in age.
After decades of public objection and later government restrictions on advertisements, marketing, and distribution of tobacco products to minors for reasons not limited to just health and nicotine dependency, the cultivation of “green tobacco” by children exposes them often to immediately hazardous levels of nicotine at often unconscionably young ages.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2013 published an extensive study into the child labor practices of the tobacco growers industry in four states: North Carolina; Kentucky; Tennessee; and Virginia. According to this study one hundred and forty one children participating in the tobacco harvests of 2012 and 2013 were interviewed by HRW. Ages of these children ranged from seventeen to as young as seven.
According to this study, “nearly three quarters of those interviewed reported sudden onsets of serious illnesses—including nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness, skin rashes, difficulty breathing, irritations to their eyes and mouths—while working in the fields of tobacco plants and barns with dried tobacco leaves and tobacco dust. Many of these symptoms are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning.”
Duties assigned to children in tobacco cultivation and harvesting included seed planting, topping, thinning undesirable leaves, applying pesticides, harvesting leaves by hand or with machinery, cutting plants with sharpened tobacco knives, storage and removal of cured leaves from barns, and stripping and sorting dried leaves.
Resulting from these exposures, often from unprotected skin and lax safety policies, children suffer often from a condition known as Green Tobacco Sickness. This illness is an occupational disease caused by workers absorbing nicotine through their skin after prolonged exposure to the plants. These symptoms, references earlier, are identified by Public and Occupation health officials. The long term effects are currently unknown though other studies on the usage of tobacco products (such as smoking) in adolescents may have links to complications in brain development. Public health research indicates that non-smoking workers in tobacco agriculture have similar levels of nicotine in their bodies as do smokers in the general population.
The study contained interviews consistent with their findings generally, where child workers reported being sprayed by pesticides applied to rows nearby causing illnesses contemporaneously. To mitigate this environment the children often would bring plastic garbage bags with them that they could fashion into ad-hoc raingear to resist spray landing on their clothes and skin—though this did not protect necessarily their hands and faces.
Due to the nature of tobacco cultivation and harvesting occurring within the summer months, the combination of high levels of heat and long hours of labor puts great amount of stresses on children that often culminate with heat stroke and dehydration. Compliance with break time standards is widely varied with some farms providing a reasonable break period for workers and others mandating that workers continue almost without pause.
The introduction of labor contractors, those who sell labor for a fixed price to farmers and where the workers are actually the employees of the contractor, has provided an opportunity for exploitation. Since these contractors retain earnings based on the margin between the revenue from the farm and the labor costs they endure, the temptation to extract more earnings often becomes high; especially in light of the fact that most workers are of an economic underclass that is less likely to report labor abuses and especially in the case of children having not the life experience or foreknowledge of what constitutes a proper and healthy working environment.
Compounding the problem is that current U.S. child labor laws permit children to labor in tobacco farms with liberal policies that permit very young children to work simply with parental permission to do so. It is often the case where this parental permission is granted by parents who also work on these farms where low wages create a need and temptation for parents allowing their children to work to supplement household incomes. Small farms are given the most leeway to employ young children. Agriculture is permitted by federal law to employ children as young as twelve with parental permission but with these small farms children under twelve may labor with parental consent. In all other industries the employment of children under fourteen is prohibited, and children fourteen to fifteen may only be employed in certain jobs with a limited number of hours each day.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour for work in tobacco farms. Some employers caused children to be paid on a piece basis which can in some respects be exploited to motivate children to perform more productively than what is reasonable for their abilities. HRW reported children interviewed expressed that they are often confused as to the actual wage they are paid and some stating they were actually paid less than the minimum permitted. Contractors were said to stoop to the level of charging children for necessities such as water and for inaccurate recording of work performed.
Internationally, treaties ratified by the United States might actually be in conflict with current federal child labor laws and their applicability to the tobacco farming industry. HRW addresses this as follows:
International Standards on Child Labor
In recognition of the potential benefits of some forms of work, international law does not prohibit children from working. The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention, which the US has ratified, obligates
countries to prohibit certain types of work for children under age 18 as a matter of urgency, including work that is likely to jeopardize children’s physical or mental health, safety or morals (also known as hazardous labor). The ILO leaves it up to governments to determine which occupations are hazardous to children’s health. Several countries, including major tobacco producing countries such as Brazil and India, prohibit children under 18 from performing work in tobacco farming. Based on our field research, interviews with health professionals, and analysis of the public health literature, Human Rights Watch has concluded that no child under age 18 should be permitted to perform any tasks in which they will come into direct contact with tobacco plants of any size or dried tobacco leaves, due to the health risks posed by nicotine, the pesticides applied to the crop, and the particular health risks to children whose bodies and brains are still developing.
The ILO Worst Forms of Child Labor
Recommendation states that certain types of work in an unhealthy environment may be appropriate for children ages 16 and older “on the condition that the health, safety and morals of the children concerned are fully protected, and that the children have received adequate specific instruction or vocational training in the relevant branch of activity.” Because exposure to tobacco in any form is unsafe, Human Rights Watch has determined, based on our field investigations and other research, that as a practical matter there is no way for children under 18 to work safely on US tobacco farms when they have direct contact with tobacco plants of any size or dried tobacco leaves, even if wearing protective equipment. Though protective equipment may help mitigate exposure to nicotine and pesticide residues, rain suits and watertight gloves would not completely eliminate absorption of toxins through the skin and would greatly increase children’s risk of suffering health related illnesses. Such problems documented by Human Rights Watch in the US seem likely to extend to tobacco farms outside the United States
HRW called upon the tobacco product manufactures and tobacco leaf companies to provide statements of their policy to address the issue of child labor. The NGO queried “companies that source tobacco from the states we visited. Eight of those companies manufacture tobacco products (Altria Group, British American Tobacco, China National Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco Group, Japan Tobacco Group, Lorillard, Philip Morris International, and Reynolds American), and two are leaf merchant companies (Alliance One International and Universal Corporation).”
In the months prior to the release of this report, HRW sent letters to each company and requested a response along with a request to meeting with company officials to discuss the issue. The HRW report stated the following regarding these exchanges:
Nine companies responded to Human Rights Watch and stated that they took steps to prohibit child labor in their supply chains. Only China National Tobacco did not respond to Human Rights Watch’s letter or repeated attempts to secure a meeting with company executives.
All of the tobacco manufacturing companies and leaf supply merchants that replied to Human Rights Watch expressed concerns about child labor in their supply chain. Only a few of the companies have explicit child labor policies in place. The approaches to child labor in the supply chain varied from company to company, as detailed below. Human Rights Watch correspondence with these companies is included in an appendix to this report, available on the Human Rights Watch website.
Of the companies approached by Human Rights Watch, Philip Morris International (PMI) has developed the most detailed and protective set of policies and procedures, including training and policy guidance on child labor and other labor issues which it is implementing in its global supply chain. PMI has also developed specific lists of hazardous tasks that children under 18 are prohibited from doing on tobacco farms, which include most tasks in which children come into prolonged contact with mature tobacco leaves, among other hazardous work.
Several companies stated that in their US operations they required tobacco growers with whom they contract to comply with US law, including laws on child labor, which, as noted above, do not afford sufficient protections for children. These companies stated that their policies for tobacco purchasing in countries outside of the US were consistent with international law, including with regard to a minimum age of 15 for entry into work under the ILO Minimum Age Convention, with the exception of certain light work, and a prohibition on hazardous work for children under 18, unless national laws afford greater protections. However, most companies did not specify the tasks that they consider to constitute hazardous work. Under these standards, children working in tobacco farming can remain vulnerable to serious health hazards and risks associated with contact with tobacco plants and tobacco leaves. A number of companies stated that they had undertaken internal and third party monitoring of their supply chains to examine labor conditions, including the use of child labor, as defined within the scope of their existing policies.
To commemorate World Day Against Child Labor it is time to perhaps seek a reassessment of the need to employ children in an occupation that studies have shown is hazardous to their health, especially during their development. We as a society have said no to the notion of children consuming nicotine as end users but we have been mostly blind to the poisonous effect of the substance on children participating in its cultivation. Yet with inconsistent oversight by tobacco companies of their farm suppliers, it is likely that opposition from the tobacco states will result in protective child labor laws. The indifference to the subject by Congress is often due to lack of demands from their constituents and heavy lobbying efforts by the tobacco industry. It is not likely these children will see improvement in their young lives as long as they are employed in an industry that in many ways is shown to be detrimental to their wellbeing.
Since approximately ninety percent of the tobacco produced in the United States comes from these four tobacco states, it is probable that they industry still will survive the additional cost of a tobacco leaf that is harvested by an adult or machine instead of a child but it is unlikely tobacco agribusinesses will want you to believe such a reality.
A true measure of a society is how well it treats its most vulnerable.
By Darren Smith
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