November 22, 2013
Washington, DC—In the wake of child labor exposés by The Nation magazine last week, the Child Labor Coalition is calling on the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to immediately ban child labor in tobacco fields—something the department had proposed to do in 2011.
In “Why Are Children Working in American Tobacco Fields?,” Gabriel Thompson’s reporting describes the alarming health risks young tobacco workers face. He tells the story of three young sisters age 12, 13, and 14 whose tobacco harvesting made them ill from “green tobacco sickness” or nicotine poisoning. Despite their health problems, the girls went on to work four summers of 60-hour weeks in the tobacco fields, absorbing the nicotine from the equivalent of 36 cigarettes each day, according to a study cited by The Nation.
“We don’t let 12-year-olds buy and smoke cigarettes,” noted Sally Greenberg, co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition and the executive director of the National Consumers League. “Why would we let them perform dangerous work in tobacco fields beginning at the age of 12? It simply isn’t right.”
“Children should not be allowed to perform dangerous work, especially in the tobacco fields,” said Norma Flores López, Chair of the Domestic Issues Committee for the Child Labor Coalition and the Director of the Children in the Fields Campaign at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. “Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of nicotine, pesticides and heat stress they are exposed to in the tobacco fields. We urge the Secretary to put the health of farmworker children over the interest of tobacco companies, and strengthen the protections for children working in agriculture.”
Thompson’s reporting cited a study that one in four tobacco workers contract green tobacco sickness.”Symptoms range from dizziness and vomiting to difficulty breathing and heart rate fluctuations requiring hospitalization,” reported Thompson. “The pain can be so excruciating that some workers call it ‘the green monster.’ A tobacco farmer in Kentucky said the sickness ‘can make you feel like you’re going to die…’”
Thompson notes that the known hazards of tobacco work have led countries “like Russia and Kazakhstan to ban anyone under 18 from harvesting tobacco,” and that the US “has played a role in such global efforts, recently spending at least $2.75 million” to eliminate child tobacco labor in Malawi.”
The US Department of Labor had called for a ban on tobacco harvesting by individuals under 18 in proposed “hazardous occupations orders” issued in 2011. These proposed occupational safety rules would have limited or prohibited teen work in 15 areas that are known to be dangerous for teen workers—unless the young individual was working on their family’s farm. Sadly, the rules were withdrawn in April 2012 after months of intense pressure from the American Farm Bureau and many members of the farm community. Many health and safety advocacy groups, including the CLC, felt the campaign against the proposed rules, which would have exempted children working on their own family farm, profoundly misleading.
When the proposed rules were withdrawn, the CLC estimated that not implementing them would result in the death of 50 to 100 working children on farms over the next decade.
“In withdrawing these badly needed safety rules, the Obama Administration yielded to industry lobbyists, but this new information about exposure to tobacco raises new warning flags,” noted Greenberg. “The Nation’s reporting makes it clear that the US government has a responsibility to protect 12-year-olds toiling in the fields. It must pick up the process it started and protect child workers from the known dangers of tobacco harvesting.”
In an accompanying piece, “Regulations are Killed, and Kids Die,” researcher Mariya Strauss notes that at least 12 young farmworkers under the age of 16 have died since the proposed regulations were withdrawn. “At least four of them died doing the hazardous tasks those rules would have prohibited them from performing,” said Strauss.
Federal data on youth occupational injuries and fatalities is glaringly incomplete, suggested Strauss: “It’s impossible not to conclude that incidents are being missed.” The CLC calls on the federal government to correct the numerous data flaws cited by Strauss. “Without accurate data collection, health and safety experts cannot design appropriate prevention strategies,” said Reid Maki, coordinator of the CLC.
“We owe it to our children to give them every opportunity to thrive, and to keep them out of harm's way,” said Lorretta Johnson, Secretary Treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers and Co-Chair of the CLC, “It is our responsibility to educate the whole child and look after their well being in and out of the classroom. Congress must raise the age at which children can work for wages in agriculture from the current age of 12 to the same minimum age of all other industries—15 or 16. Legislation currently in Congress, the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE), H.R. 2342, addresses the inequities and harsh conditions faced by many child farm laborers, it would close the child labor loopholes for kids not working on their family’s farm. We cannot afford to let political pressure keep us from fulfilling our collective responsibility of providing all children with equal access to high quality public education.”
About the Child Labor Coalition