NCL applauds U.S. Department of Labor’s withdrawal of the Trump Administration’s ‘Independent Contractor Rule’

May 6, 2021

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org(412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org(202) 207-2832

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL), America’s pioneering consumer and worker advocacy organization, welcomes yesterday’s withdrawal of the Trump Administration’s “Independent Contractor Rule,” which would have too narrowly defined who is an “employee” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

“The Trump Administration’s ‘Independent Contractor Rule’ would have been bad for American workers, especially women and those who toil in low-wage industries. It would have made it easier to classify workers like construction workers, farmworkers, Uber- and Lyft- drivers, janitors, and care givers as ‘independent contractors,’ denying them the rights and benefits ’employees’ have. It would have left workers already vulnerable to wage theft and safety risks even more at risk,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg.

In its announcement about the impending rule’s withdrawal, the U.S. Department of Labor noted that the FLSA requires employees be paid “at least the federal minimum wage for every hour they work and overtime compensation at not less than one-and-one half times their regular rate of pay for every hour over 40 in a work week.” Withdrawing the new rule preserves these essential worker rights and other protections granted by the FLSA.

DOL rightfully noted that independent contractor designations are not necessary to provide workers with flexible hours—something proponents of the new rule had suggested. “Employment and flexibility are not mutually exclusive,” said DOL.

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

National consumer organization throwing support behind three major labor rights bills in Congress

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org(412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org(202) 207-2832

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL), America’s pioneering consumer and worker advocacy organization, founded in 1899 to advance the needs of consumers and workers, is backing three important federal bills aiming to even the playing field between workers and employers. The three pieces of legislation—the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA), and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act—would strengthen labor laws and give workers greater opportunities to organize and form unions, protecting the most vulnerable in our labor force.

“Decades of industry lobbying have made it increasingly difficult for workers to organize,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “Employers enjoy unprecedented and unfair advantages during union organizing drives, which has led to far fewer opportunities for workers to make their voices heard in the workplace. NCL is pleased to support several legislative initiatives that would help right the course for America’s workers.”

According to a recent Gallup Poll, roughly two-thirds of Americans approve of unions—a number trending upwards up from about half in 2009.

“Consumers are recognizing that they are harmed when workers do not have a strong voice,” said Greenberg. “Industry abuses are more likely to go unchecked, resulting in unsafe and dangerous products making it to the marketplace. And when workers are fairly compensated on the job, they can afford to buy the products they create, stimulating further demand that benefits the economy.”

About the bills

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) would enhance collective bargaining rights, impose penalties on employers if they retaliate against workers who are trying to organize, and update labor laws to protect workers. The bill passed in the House of Representatives with bipartisan support this spring on a 225-206 vote. The bill currently awaits action in the Senate. Of 50 Democratic and independent Senators, 45 are currently committed to supporting the bill. If the Senate passes the bill, President Biden has pledged to sign it.

NCL strongly supports the PRO ACT and urges the Senate to swiftly pass this important measure.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA) passed the House October 30, 2019, and was the product of bipartisan negotiations between leading Democrats and Republicans to modernize laws and treat with dignity and fairness our 2.4 million farmworkers, half of whom are undocumented immigrants. On March 18, 2021, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, H.R. 1603, passed the House again by a bipartisan vote of 247-174, with 30 Republicans joining Democrats in support. H.R. 1603, like the earlier version of the legislation.

“America’s farms and food systems depend on immigrants who pick our crops. But because so many don’t have legal status, they live in fear of deportation and cannot challenge illegal or unfair treatment in their jobs or in their communities,” said Greenberg. “FWMA provides a path to lawful permanent residency for these workers. Under the bill’s provisions, farmworkers would be able to improve their wages and working conditions and seek enforcement when their rights are violated. It also makes America more food-secure by ensuring that farmers have workers to harvest their perishable crops.”

The FMWA is a pro-consumer, pro-worker, and pro-agriculture bill that NCL strongly supports. NCL urges the Senate to pass this legislation and send it to President Biden’s desk for his signature.

The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act (PSFNA, HR 3463 and S 1970), would set a minimum nationwide standard of collective bargaining rights that all states would have to provide to state and local workers.

There are nearly 17.3 million public sector workers across the country. Unlike private-sector workers, there is no federal law protecting the freedom of public sector workers to join a union and collectively bargain for fair wages, benefits, and improved working conditions.

Currently, 20 states do not provide all state and local public sector workers the ability to collectively bargain for fair wages and benefits.

Among the bill’s provisions is a requirement that public sector employers recognize labor unions chosen by a majority of the employees voting, and that they bargain with the labor organization over wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. If states fail to meet these standards, the bill gives the federal government the authority to intervene on behalf of public-service workers, ensuring their rights to form a union and negotiate with their employer.

NCL strongly supports the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act and urges swift Congressional action in both the House and the Senate so that President Biden can sign the bill into law.

“America would be unrecognizable without the gains made by working families and unions,” said Greenberg. “The movement needs an even playing field to do its job. These three bills are a good start, and NCL is proud to support each of them.”

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

National Consumers League applauds confirmation of Marty Walsh as U.S. Labor Secretary

March 23, 2021

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org(412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org(202) 207-2832

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL), America’s pioneering consumer and worker advocacy organization, welcomes the Senate confirmation of Marty Walsh as U.S. Labor Secretary. Walsh will be the first Labor Secretary in more than 50 years with a union background. During his confirmation hearing, Walsh spoke out against systemic racism and pledged to do the hard work of enacting policies that address the issue. “It’s not simply just throwing fancy words out there, but in policies, it’s actually doing the work, rolling up our sleeves,” he told Senators.

The following statement is attributable to NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg:

We look forward to Marty Walsh’s confirmation as Secretary of the Department of Labor. His background as a union leader in the building trades and as a former state legislator and the mayor of Boston will suit him well for the position. In recent years, we have seen worker rights and worker protections seriously eroded; Marty Walsh will fix that. He will restore badly needed protections and support workers’ right to collective bargaining.

Walsh was a proponent of Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which passed the House last year. It would add labor protections for workers and make it easier to organize. He will work to ensure that the labor inspectorate is revitalized and he will restore the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as an entity that safeguards the health and safety of workers. He is also a supporter of raising the minimum wage, which has not kept up with inflation and should receive a major increase.

The National Consumers League works closely with the Department of Labor in pursuing strategies to reduce global child labor. We know that Walsh views the exploitation of children in child labor and the forced labor of children and adults as a human rights abuse that deserves concerted action. We look forward to Marty Walsh’s leadership at this vital cabinet position as the nation emerges from a dreadful pandemic that has impacted so much of the American workforce.

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

Child labor’s public perception problem

Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League and he coordinates the Child Labor Coalition.

There are a lot of obstacles to ending child labor that the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) and its nearly 40 members confront on a daily basis. Poverty, governmental indifference, educational access, and a lack of awareness of the long-term impact of child labor on children are all big factors, but another is lack of knowledge of the scope or prevalence of the problem. The average American consumer doesn’t understand that child labor is a pervasive problem affecting an estimated 152 million children in the world—and that’s an estimate developed before the pandemic started. We think the number has grown significantly since COVID started throwing hundreds of millions of families into deeper poverty.

We became aware of the gap between the public’s perception of the problem and the reality of the situation seven years ago when the group Child Fund International commissioned a survey of over 1,000 consumers. Only one percent knew that roughly 150 million children were trapped in child labor globally. Even more disturbing: 73 percent of respondents—essentially three out of four—incorrectly guessed that the global total was less the one million. They were off by a factor of 150!

It’s hard to galvanize public and political opinion to confront a pressing social problem when few people realize the massive scope of the problem and instead misperceive it as a tiny, moribund problem. If we want corporations that benefit from child labor to take serious action, we need a better understanding of the problem’s prevalence. Governments are not likely to act or expend financial resources on programs to fix a problem perceived as affecting very few children.

We’ve been wondering if the Internet and Twitter have helped close the perception gap in the several years since Child Fund’s polling. Surveys are expensive and our budget didn’t allow us to conduct a phone-based survey like the 2013 poll. So, we decided to use a Survey Monkey internet poll to see where the public’s perception levels were at. We conducted the poll before COVID struck.

We gave respondents the opportunity to guess how many children were impacted by child labor and offered the following choices:

  • 1 in 10
  • 1 in 100
  • 1 in 500
  • 1 in 1,000
  • 1 in 5,000
  • 1 in 50,000

The most popular answer was the correct one: “1 in 10.” Thirty-five percent guessed correctly that 10 percent of the world’s children toil in child labor. However, that means that roughly two out of three respondents were off by a factor of 10 or more.

We think the answers in our informal internet poll may have skewed toward a better knowledge of the problem because we advertised the survey on our Twitter (@ChildLaborCLC), meaning it was being seen by people who presumably had better knowledge about child labor than the random public. With two-thirds of the public off by a factor of 100 or more, we know we still have a lot of work to do to close the perception gap.

In the last decade, the CLC has posted nearly 11,000 tweets to increase public understanding that child labor is a widespread and pernicious problem. We’re also active on Facebook (@ChildLaborCoalition) and our website (stopchildlabor.org) generates about 100,000 visits a year.

Those efforts don’t seem to be enough and we could use your help in the fight to end child labor. Please follow our posts and share them. Be a warrior in the fight to end child labor!

Remember that Child Fund International poll in 2013 we started with? The good news revealed in that survey was that more than half (55 percent) of the respondents said they would pay more for clothing made without child labor. They said they would pay 34 percent more on average for clothing untainted by child labor! According to cleanclothes.org, labor costs are typically less than 3 percent of clothing costs. Ending child labor would not raise prices significantly.

Garments are just one of 150 products identified by the U.S. Department of Labor “Sweat and Toil” app as being produced with child labor. If consumers are willing to pay more for child labor free clothing, they are likely to pay more for all products without child exploitation. That’s very encouraging.

The Child Labor Coalition is co-chaired by the National Consumers League and the American Federation of Teachers. Consumers who wish to donate to help reduce child labor can do so here.

What’s the real cost of a banana?

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow
When we buy a product at our local grocery store, we sometimes do not think of how the product was sourced or what it took to get it to our shopping cart. One such commonly consumed product are bananas. With more than a billion eaten yearly, it’s one of the top five fruits consumed worldwide. Let us ask the question, “what is the real cost of a banana?” by diving deeper into the banana industry and, specifically, its exploitation of child labor.

According to the International Labor Organization, child labor is defined as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.” Globally, 152 million children are trapped in child labor, highlighting the extent of the problem. The banana industry is just one of many industries using child labor. The two regions that are the largest producers of bananas are Asia and Latin America.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2017 Findings of the Worst Forms of Child Labor, 57 percent of child laborers in Brazil were working in agriculture, with high concentration in the North and the Northeast regions. In Brazil, the Government of Brazil’s Household Survey estimated that 2,936 children under the age of 14 were involved in cultivating bananas in 2015. When Oxfam New Zealand interviewed households in banana plantation towns in the Philippines, they found that 22.5 percent reported having a child working.

Banana plantation laborers in the Philippines may be hired by middlemen who deploy them to different plantations or farms owned by corporate growers, Oxfam New Zealand found. On these banana plantations, child laborers are assigned to bagging and stripping of banana leaves. These growers then sell bananas to major global brands such as Dole, Chiquita, or Del Monte.

The U.S. imported over $2.8 billion in bananas which is 17.6 percent of total imported bananas in 2019 according to World Top Exports. As consumers, we have the power to demand that companies create non-exploitative, fair trade, and child labor free products. Consumers need to take a stance against products made with child labor, which would put pressure on companies to implement fair and ethical policies governed by accountability measures. It is an indisputable truth that how you spend your money can literally affect the lives of millions around the world.

As consumers in a country with dominant economic power, it is imperative for us to learn about the origins of the products we use. We all must do our part. One way to start is to download an app called Sweat & Toil—created by the U.S. Department of Labor—which lets you:

  1. check countries’ efforts to eliminate child labor;
  2. find child labor data;
  3. browse goods produced with child labor or forced labor;
  4. review local and international laws and ratifications; and
  5. see what governments can do to end child labor.

The other way consumers can make more responsible decisions is by visiting the Equal Exchange online and via social media. In 1986, Equal Exchange became a pioneer in fair trade coffee by paying mutually agreed upon prices with a guaranteed minimum to small-scale coffee farmers. And in 2006, it began working towards applying this model to bananas. Equal Exchange bananas are grown at three small farmer cooperatives in Ecuador and Peru. Through democratically organized co-ops, farmers leverage collective resources and obtain access to global markets, maintaining agency over their businesses, land, and livelihoods. Consumers can request these bananas from their local grocery stores.

The banana industry continues to engage in unfair labor practices, subject workers to dangerous working conditions, and perpetuate global inequalities. Let us be informed consumers and take action to stop child labor by supporting certified, fair trade organic bananas.

Not so sweet: Child labor in banana production

By Child Labor Coalition intern Ellie Murphy

Americans eat a lot of bananas. The U.S. is the world’s biggest importer of bananas, eating between 28 and 30 bananas per person per year. Worldwide, bananas are the most popular fruit with 100 billion consumed annually. The fruit is nutritious and cheap. Prices generally fluctuate between 30 cents and $1.00 per banana. It’s a great deal for the consumer, but someone is paying a heavy price to produce bananas: exploited farmworkers, including many children.
Stagnating banana prices have put the squeeze on farmers, leading some planters to hire the cheapest workers—children. The work is hard, often dangerous, and not fit for children. Yet they toil in the fields to help their impoverished families.

Countries that use child labor to produce bananas include Ecuador, Belize, Brazil, Nicaragua, and the Philippines, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s (USDOL) List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.

Poverty is the main driver of child labor, but children in the developing world face barriers to accessing education that can push them to farm work. Besides the cost of school, uniforms, and books, there are also some countries that don’t have enough schools, classrooms, or teachers. And transportation problems can impact children’s ability to attend school.

Child labor in the banana sector poses significant challenges to children’s health and overall well-being. Child workers employed at these plantations are often forced to handle sharp tools like machetes, carry heavy loads, and face exposure to agrochemicals like pesticides and fungicides without protective clothing or gear. Dizziness, nausea, and negative long-term health conditions can result in child workers, and because child workers often live on banana plantations, escaping these health hazards is nearly impossible.

Let’s take a closer look at Ecuador, the world’s top exporter of bananas.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in April 2002 found widespread labor and human rights abuses on Ecuadorian banana plantations. Children as young as eight were found performing hazardous work. “The use of harmful child labor is widespread in Ecuador’s banana sector,” concluded HRW. Report authors interviewed 45 child banana workers and found that 41 began working between eight and 13 with most starting at age 10 or 11. “Their average workday lasted twelve hours, and fewer than 40 percent of the children were still in school by the time they turned fourteen,” noted HRW. According to USDOL, almost half of indigenous children in rural areas do not attend school, “which can make them more vulnerable to child labor.

“In the course of their work, [child banana workers] were exposed to toxic pesticides, used sharp knives and machetes, hauled heavy loads of bananas, drank unsanitary water, and some were sexually harassed,” noted HRW.

Roughly 90 percent of the children HRW interviewed reported that they “continued working while toxic fungicides were sprayed from airplanes flying overhead. In an attempt to avoid harmful chemicals, children interviewed about their experience stated that they used various methods to avoid toxic chemicals: “hiding under banana leaves, bowing their heads, covering their faces with their shirts, covering their noses and mouths with their hands, and placing banana cartons on their heads.”

About one in 20 Ecuadorian children in the 5-14 age group work—and four in five of these child workers toil on farms, according to data from USDOL released in its 2019 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor (2019) report.

Clearly, child labor laws in Ecuador are not being adequately enforced. Alarmingly, according to the USDOL, funding for Ecuador’s labor inspectorate fell dramatically from $1.5 million in 2017 to $265,398 in 2018. During that time the number of inspectors increased from 150 to 249. There is no explanation provided for these conflicting numbers but USDOL did note there were fiscal pressures on the Ecuadorian government.

The 2002 HRW report cited many causes of child labor, including discrimination against unionized adult workers who earn higher wages. As a result, many workers who unionize are fired and replaced with children who earn around $3.50 per day, 60 percent of the minimum wage for banana farmers. “Ecuadorian law fails to protect effectively the right to freedom of association, and employers take advantage of the weak law and even weaker enforcement to impede worker organizing,” noted HRW.

Since the 2002 HRW report, Ecuador has raised the minimum age of employment to 15, banned children from hazardous work, and raised fines for employers hiring children.

In its 2019 child labor Findings report, USDOL noted that “in 2018, Ecuador made a significant advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.” One change involved better protecting unionized employees against discrimination so that children are not targeted for cheap labor. Ecuador has also created more social programs for children susceptible to child labor, including the “Lifetime Plan” that provides conditional cash transfers to vulnerable children from birth.

Despite the positive ranking for Ecuador, child labor in the banana sector continues to be prevalent in Ecuador.  Poverty and limited law enforcement make child labor an unfortunate reality for families.

Banana exporting companies often fail to address adequately child labor and hazardous working conditions in their supply chains. The big players –Dole, Del Monte, and Chiquita Fyffes—need to do more if we are to end child labor in banana production. Dole claims to prohibit child labor stating that “[it prohibits] any people younger than 18 from being hired or employed in any form.” Yet, child labor in the sector flourishes in at least five of the major exporting countries, according to USDOL.

In its Findings report, USDOL makes a number of recommendations to help reduce child labor in Ecuador, including a call for a new national child labor survey, added funding to hire more labor inspectors, and social programs in rural farm areas and informal sectors. USDOL also suggests “removing school-related fees, increasing classroom space, and providing adequate transportation.” These modifications will specifically help children living in rural areas such as migrant children and indigenous children stay in school.

Concerted efforts by the Ecuadorian government and multinational banana exporters are needed if child labor is to be reduced.

Consumers have a part to play in the solution as well. The Food Empowerment Project advises consumers to buy bananas produced with less exploitation. They recommend buying from Equal Exchange. Bananas from small farmer-owned cooperatives are available in some parts of the United States. Look for bananas from Coliman, Earth University, and Organics Unlimited/Grow. “If your grocery stores do not carry these brands of bananas, we encourage you to ask them to,” says the Food Empowerment Project.

Consumers should make their voices heard: the sweetest banana is a child-labor-free banana.

Ellie Murphy is a rising junior at Tufts University, majoring in International Relations and Sociology.

Labor Day 2020 sees highest approval ratings for unions since 2003

Happy Labor Day everyone! The breaking news about this year’s Labor Day Celebrations is that a cross-section of Americans support labor unions in higher numbers. In fact, a recent Gallup poll found that 65 percent approve of unions, compared to just 49 percent in 2009. Today, 83 percent of Democrats support unions, while 64 percent of independents do and 45 percent of Republicans do. That’s telling news about how Americans perceive the value of labor unions.

Why has support for unions gone up? Because unions provide a voice for workers on health care, workplace safety, economic security, and decent wages—something all Americans want and need. Last week NCL asked our union representatives on our Board of Directors to join us for a discussion on COVID-19 and the importance of unions. You can watch the broadcast here: COVID-19: The inside perspective from frontline workers and their unions.

We are also pleased that State Attorneys General are playing an increasingly important part in protecting workers from wage theft and enforcing the law against errant employers.

NCL’s John Breyault has had four interviews with state AG’s in the past several months, focused on fraud and other related issues. The NCL Board and staff support stronger AG action in the coming months, and our work on this issue truly makes NCL’s mission #NeverMoreRelevant in these changing times.

This 2020 Labor Day, we want to thank the many millions of American workers who have showed up each day for work, risked their health and well-being to do their jobs during this very challenging pandemic. With support for unions on the rise, let us commit to reforming labor laws and allowing workers to organize and join unions without undue influence or scare tactics from employers. The rates of union membership should be far higher and would be but for the barriers in place. Once again, to America’s workers we say: stay safe and stay healthy this 2020 Labor Day.

Farmworkers and COVID: ‘A ticking time bomb’

It’s been referred to as a “ticking time bomb,” the coronavirus and its potential impact on farmworkers—the incredibly hard-working men, women, and children who pick our fruits and vegetables and provide other essential agricultural work. Farmworkers are notoriously underpaid for dirty, back-breaking work and now face great risk from COVID-19.

Farmworker advocacy groups that National Consumers League (NCL) works with or supports—such as Farmworker Justice, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the United Farmworkers of America (UFW), the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and a national cadre of legal aid attorneys—have spent recent months strategizing about ways to protect this community that is especially vulnerable to the virus.

Farmworkers are poor, with extremely limited access to health care and, due to their poverty, often report to work despite illness. The risks of an outbreak are especially great because workers often toil in close physical proximity to one another as they harvest, ride to the fields in crowded buses and cars, have limited access to sanitary facilities, including hand-washing, and often live in overcrowded, dilapidated housing.

Despite their essential contributions to the economy, farmworkers have been cut out of the emergency relief packages. The Trump Administration has even revealed plans to lower pay for agricultural guest workers who sacrifice home and family to come to the United States to perform arduous farm labor. Advocates fear that decreasing guest worker wages would drive down wages for farmworkers already living and working in the United States.

The majority of farmworkers are immigrants from Mexico or are the children of Mexican immigrants, often socially isolated from mainstream America. Poverty forced many farmworkers to leave school at an early age. It also causes them to bring their children to work in the fields so that child labor can supplement their meager incomes. Language and cultural barriers further their isolation. NCL, through the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which it founded and co-chairs, continues to work to close the loopholes in labor laws that allow children in agriculture to work at early ages—often 12—and to begin performing hazardous work at age 16.

“When the virus began to move into America’s rural areas, many socially- and culturally-isolated farmworkers hadn’t heard about the virus,” said Reid Maki, director of child labor issues and coordinator of the CLC. “Some were confused that the grocery store shelves were empty and that the bottled water they usually buy suddenly cost much more. In some cases, farmworkers are not being told about the virus or the need to take special precautions while working.”

Farmworkers face an alarming dearth of protective equipment. Many farmworkers groups, are urgently racing to provide masks and other protective gear.

A farmworker with COVID-19 is unlikely to know he or she has it and, therefore, very likely to keep working and infect their family and coworkers. Recently, a growers group tested 71 tree fruit workers in Wenatchee, WA. Although none of the workers were showing symptoms of COVID-19, more than half tested positive!

Concerned about these developments, the CLC wrote letters in May to several appropriators and the Committee on Agriculture, asking for additional nutritional and childcare resources for farmworker families.

Box: How to get involved

  • Sign the Food Chain Workers Alliance to urge Congress to include resources for food chain workers.
  • Sign UFW’s petition urging Congress to stop Trump Administration efforts to lower wages for agricultural guest workers.
  • Make masks and send them to farmworker groups in your state.
  • Urge congressional representatives to fund farmworker relief efforts.

It’s time for U.S. tobacco companies to protect all child tobacco workers

Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League and he coordinates the Child Labor Coalition.

In 2014, under pressure from advocacy groups like the Child Labor Coalition and Human Rights Watch (HRW), several tobacco companies operating in the United States announced they would only buy tobacco from growers who agree not to hire children under 16 to work in contact with tobacco plants.

The child rights and human rights groups had been pushing for a ban on all children—aged 17 and below—from harvesting tobacco because of health problems related to nicotine exposure. These negative health impacts were well-documented in Tobacco’s Hidden Children, a report from HRW published in May 2014.

“Children interviewed by Human Rights Watch in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia frequently described feeling seriously, acutely sick, while working in tobacco farming,” noted HRW. “For example, Carla P., 16, works for hire on tobacco farms in Kentucky with her parents and her younger sister. She told Human Rights Watch she got sick while pulling the
tops off tobacco plants: ‘I didn’t feel well, but I still kept working. I started throwing up. I was throwing up for like 10 minutes, just what I ate. I took a break for a few hours, and then I went back to work.’

Another child worker interviewed by HRW, Emilio R., a 16-year-old seasonal worker in eastern North Carolina, said he had headaches that sometimes lasted up to two days while working in tobacco: “With the headaches, it was hard to do anything at all. I didn’t want to move my head.”

Some children describe the flu-like symptoms of nicotine poisoning as “feeling like I was going to die.”

HRW researchers found that “many of the symptoms reported by child tobacco workers are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, known as Green Tobacco Sickness, an occupational health risk specific to tobacco farming that occurs when workers absorb nicotine through their skin while having prolonged contact with tobacco plants.” Dizziness, headaches, nausea, and vomiting are the most common symptoms of acute nicotine poisoning. Three-quarters of the children interviewed by HRW in the report noted the onset of health symptoms when they began tobacco work, and many of those symptoms correlated with nicotine absorption.

U.S. child labor law is of no help in dealing with this problem. American law has exemptions for agriculture that allow children who are only 12 to work unlimited hours on farms as long as they are not missing school.

In 2014, the tobacco companies agreeing to protect the youngest child workers seemed like an important step forward. But six years later, we have concerns that the voluntary ban is not working.

Farmworker communities have proven particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. With schools closed for the summer and many parents sick, we fear that the number of children from desperately poor farmworker families who seek jobs on tobacco farms may increase.

Over the last six years, partner organizations in North Carolina have told us that younger children are still working in tobacco fields.

A recent health impacts study on child farmworkers in North Carolina (“Latinx child farmworkers in North Carolina: Study design and participant baseline characteristics” in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, November 28, 2018) by researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine reported data that suggests children under 16 continue to work in tobacco
fields.

In 2017, the first year Wake Forest researchers interviewed farmworker children—and three years after the tobacco companies’ voluntary age restriction, researchers interviewed 202 children and found 116 had worked tobacco in the week before the interview.

Yes, it’s just one study. But in the absence of federal and state data—which is notoriously poor when it comes to counting child farmworkers—it suggests that, in North Carolina, one of the four prime tobacco-growing states, nearly half of child tobacco workers are under 16. It confirms what we had been hearing anecdotally from farmworker groups in North Carolina: the
tobacco companies’ policy isn’t working.

Children in the United States are not allowed to perform work that has been labeled hazardous by the U.S. Department of Labor. You must be 18 to do dangerous work in all sectors except agriculture. This is an exemption that needs to end. Tobacco has not been labeled as dangerous work, even though everyone agrees that it is. That’s why the tobacco companies in
2014 said young children should not do it.

Children who are under 18 cannot buy cigarettes in a store, yet they are permitted to work 10 or 12 hour days in tobacco fields in stifling heat, breathing nicotine though the air, and absorbing it through their skin. Many children are so desperate to avoid contact with the plants that they work in black garbage backs with holes cut out for their arms and legs.

Efforts to pass federal legislation, the Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act, could fix this problem with a total ban on child labor in U.S. tobacco. Unfortunately, versions of the bill, in both the U.S. House and Senate, are not expected to pass any time soon. Child farmworkers, often poor and Latino, are often at the end of congressional priority lists.

American tobacco companies have had six years to try a piecemeal approach that is not working. We need tobacco companies to step up and do the right thing by banning child work in tobacco.

The impact of COVID-19 on child labor

By Child Labor Coalition intern Ellie Murphy

Combatting child labor during a global pandemic is a staggering challenge. In countries like Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Bangladesh—and dozens more—school cancellations and lost family income may push children into the labor market. Once in, it may be hard for them to get out and return to school. In the face of this dire emergency, governments, the corporate world, and charitable institutions will need to support vulnerable families during this unprecedented time.

There is a strong correlation between access to education and preventing child labor. “Lack of access to education keeps the cycle of exploitation, illiteracy, and poverty going—limiting future options and forcing children to accept low-wage work as adults and to raise their own children in poverty,” noted the children’s advocacy group, Their World.

With nine in 10 children across the globe prevented from attending school in person, Human Rights Watch notes that interrupting formal education will have a huge impact on children and jeopardize their opportunity for better employment opportunities in the future: “For many children, the COVID-19 crisis will mean limited or no education, or falling further behind their peers.”

Poverty is the single greatest cause of child labor. Because many parents have lost or will lose their jobs, children are facing increased pressure to supplement family incomes. “Children work because their survival and that of their families depend on it, and in many cases because unscrupulous adults take advantage of their vulnerability,” notes the International Labour Organization.

Countries are being impacted by COVID-19 differently, but developing countries are expected to feel more negative consequences than developed countries, according to a report from WorldAtlas.com. Tourism and trade helps fuel many of these economies and the COVID pandemic has devastated both sectors.

Developing countries—primarily in Africa and Asia—already house 90 percent of working children, according to the International Journal of Health Sciences. Economic pressure from the pandemic will likely drive even more children into the workforce.

Before the pandemic, child labor in West Africa was widespread. 2.1 million child laborers were employed by cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast and 900,000 children on cocoa farms in Ghana, according to researchers from Tulane University. Ghana and the Ivory Coast produce about 60 percent of the world’s cocoa—a critical ingredient in chocolate. A recent Voice of America (VOA) article included predications that “there will be increased economic pressures on farming families, and ongoing school closures in Ghana [meaning] children are more likely to accompany their parents to their farms and be exposed to hazardous activities.”

The VOA cited research by the International Cocoa Initiative that analyzed the impacts of income loss on child labor rates in the Ivory Coast and found that a 10 percent drop in income for families in the cocoa industry is expected to produce a 5 percent increase in child labor.

Bangladesh, which had a reported 1.2 million children trapped in the worst forms of child labor in 2015, according to the ILO, is also at risk of seeing child labor increase. Most Bangladeshi workers—87 percent—earn money in the informal economy performing daily labor, unpaid work for their family, or piece-rate work. COVID-19 impacts have left families struggling with a severe drop in income of around 70 percent in many cases. Many adults and children who work making parts of products like garments have seen their income disappear entirely. “Those who depend on daily wages, for example, day labourers, rickshaw pullers, construction workers, street vendors, workers at small informal factories have lost their incomes with the hit of the pandemic,” noted researchers with the Institute for Development Studies. With this dramatic loss of income, it is expected that families will turn to their children to earn more money to buy basic necessities for survival.

In an effort to combat the potential increase in child labor, human rights organizations have urged governments to support families during this crisis—including the use of cash transfer programs. This entails direct cash payments to destitute families. Sometimes there are strings attached to the payments. Families that accept the money must promise to keep children in school and not allow them to enter the labor market. Cash transfers, often involving small amounts of money, have proven effective, in varying degrees, in reducing child labor in many countries.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, even small amounts of money might prevent starvation—or keep children out of the labor market. Save the Children argues that cash transfers help reduce the rate of child mortality, increase access to education, and reduce child abuse. Researchers Jacobus DeHoop and Eric Edmonds recently noted that 133 countries were working on social protection responses that provide financial support to vulnerable families in an effort to combat an increase in child labor during this time. Human Rights Watch has a series of recommendations for governments, including cash transfer payments.

Government efforts alone may not be enough. Companies that employ vulnerable demographics must also respond. Verité, an organization that works to eliminate abusive labor and empower workers, issued a series of recommendations to help companies address COVID impacts. Among the recommendations was a call for companies that work in areas with high rates of child labor to monitor “hot spots” for exploitation and intervene when necessary. Additionally, Verite urged companies to provide benefits for families who experience a loss of a parent due to the pandemic, make work remote when possible, and provide longer sick leaves for employees.

The COVID-19 crisis calls for innovative efforts to protect vulnerable families and children. As Jo Becker, the children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, notes “the choices governments make now are crucial, not only to mitigate the worst harm of the pandemic, but also to benefit children over the long term.” By providing families with desperately needed resources during this unprecedented time, it may be possible to help curtail the increase of child labor worldwide.

In the last two decades, the world has seen the number of child laborers drop by nearly 100 million. “We do not want to see those hard-won gains reversed,” said Reid Maki, director of child labor advocacy for the National Consumers League and the coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition. “Concerted and robust action is required.” The actions that those in power take today will have long-lasting impacts that go far beyond COVID-19.

Ellie Murphy is a rising junior at Tufts University, majoring in International Relations and Sociology.