President Obama should act to protect child tobacco farmworkers – National Consumers League

I bet you knew that a 12-year-old cannot legally buy cigarettes in the US. But did you know that it’s legal in America for the same 12-year-old can work in a tobacco field for 10- to 12- hours a day in 100-degree heat and suffer repeated bouts of nicotine poisoning.

It doesn’t pass the common sense test and President Obama should do something about it. That’s the message sent to the President last Thursday in a letter by the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), a group which the National Consumers League founded 25 years ago to protect child workers from exploitative child labor and dangerous jobs. Sixteen groups, including the NAACP the League of United Latin American Citizens, Oxfam America, and Public Citizen, joined 34 CLC members to urge the White House to take immediate action.

The members of the CLC have long known the dangers of tobacco work for children, but we have a relatively new weapon in our fight to educate the public about this issue: A recent report, “Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming,” published by Human Rights Watch found that three quarters of 141 child tobacco workers interviewed in North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee-–the main tobacco-producing states—reported getting sick while working on US tobacco farms. Many of their symptoms—nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, and dizziness—are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning (also known as “Green Tobacco Sickness”).

To make matters worse, Human Rights Watch found that three of the four states that produce 90 percent of US tobacco (Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee) have failed to take sufficient measures to enforce the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Field Sanitation Standard. This standard requires workers to be provided with fresh drinking water, hand washing facilities, and toilets. Most of the children interviewed by HRW were not provided with hand washing facilities or toilets, and some were not given sufficient drinking water.  The absence of hand washing facilities significantly increases the risks of nicotine and pesticide exposure.

Using information from the OSHA Integrated Management Information System, HRW reports that from January 2010 to December 2013, Kentucky carried out only eight field inspections in tobacco, Tennessee carried out one field inspection, and Virginia carried out none. Only one of the four major tobacco-producing states – North Carolina – made meaningful attempts to enforce the Field Sanitation Standard, with 143 inspections during the time period, said HRW researchers.

In addition to nicotine, farmworker children may also be absorbing a range of toxic pesticides commonly used in tobacco fields. Children often wear black garbage bags to protect them from these dual exposures but you can imagine what it’s like to wear a plastic bag in the 90- and 100-degree temperatures often found in tobacco fields. And, the work is dangerous. Child tobacco workers often use sharp tools and can work in tobacco drying barns at two-, three- and four-story heights without protective equipment as they balance precariously on the top of beams that may be only one or two inches thick

Signed by 50 organizations, the letter to President Obama represents millions of Americans, including teachers, healthcare professionals, farmworkers, and advocates concerned about the safety, education, and welfare of children, and it asks the president to issue narrowly-tailored regulations to prohibit work by children in tobacco fields and calls on the Department of Labor to conduct targeted field investigations to ensure that no children under 12 are working in the fields illegally.

The letter to the president also calls on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue “health hazard alerts” so that employers will know how they might mitigate risks of nicotine poisoning for their employees. And it cites the need for better data collection to allow an accurate count of the number of children who currently work in US tobacco fields and other farms.

The situation—with children as young as 12 (and HRW found about a dozen kids conducting lighter work in the fields who were under 12)—is so absurd that it proved great material for the satirists at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, who produced a funny, but alarming, report called “Nicoteens.” The clip will make you laugh and allow you to hear young tobacco workers describing the work conditions in their own words.

In June, the CLC sent a letter to the top 10 tobacco companies signed by over 50 organizations, asking for voluntary action to limit tobacco work in the fields. Thus far, no concrete actions to remove children from tobacco fields have been initiated by the companies.

In 2011, the Obama Administration acted to implement regulations to protect working children from farm dangers, including tobacco work, but those rules were withdrawn because of opposition from the farm community. CLC members fought hard for those comprehensive protections, but were no match for the resources of the agricultural lobby. The wholesale withdrawal of occupational child safety regulations for farms left child workers in tobacco vulnerable to nicotine poisoning, pesticide poisoning, and other dangers. It’s time to fix this glaring consequence of the administration’s complete pullback and move forward to protect children in tobacco fields.

Readers who wish to send a quick note to the White House about this issue should go here.

A bill, HR 5327, in the House of Representatives, recently introduced by Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) would classify tobacco work as hazardous labor, allowing the USDOL to ban work by children under 16. We encourage consumers to call or write their member of Congress and ask them to cosponsor the bill.

It’s time to stop the madness. We need your help.

We remember Robin Romano – National Consumers League

At a eulogy in New York, Pharis Harvey, the founder of the International Labor Rights Fund and a pioneer in modern child labor advocacy, called him “a loose cannon for justice.”

“The heat of his moral imperative was more than he could contain,” said Sam Morris, who worked with Robin on multiple films.

We lost Robin in early November, when he passed away unexpectedly. It seemed impossible that this firebrand could be gone. As I attended his memorial service in New York, I don’t think I was alone in expecting him to walk in the door and say, “The joke’s on you…the rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

Robin was only 57, but everyone thought he was younger. He had piercing blue eyes that were constantly smiling or glowering. Robin was often outraged. How could you not be? A quarter of a billion children were toiling in the most harrowing of circumstances and no one seemed to care. Millions were enslaved. Millions were trapped in bonded labor.

Robin’s outrage was often tempered with a mischievous delight in making people laugh.  He was a jokester who loved making prank phone calls. He would call and, in an exaggerated, exotic accent—with mock-outrage—accuse us of using child labor or failing to pay our taxes.

SCI first met Robin over a dozen years ago when I learned that he and his filmmaking partner Len Morris were working on the first feature length film about child labor, Stolen Childhoods. At the time, 250 million children were trapped in child labor, but the child labor advocacy community was having a hard time getting people to care about them.  We needed to put a face on the problem and Stolen Childhoods promised to do just that. Robin and Len roamed around the globe filming shocking scenes of child labor—often at great peril. They fled for their lives on more than one occasion.

Their lens captured young boys on fishing platforms, young girls working as domestic servants or forced into prostitution. They filmed children laboring in stone quarries, brick kilns, and coffee plantations. They showed a range of child labor and conditions that horrified the public.

When we met, Robin and Len were interested in adding to the nearly completed Stolen Childhoods a segment about child farmworkers in the US—a vestige of child labor that still haunts America today.

At the time, I worked for the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, a CLC member that had been trying to highlight this issue for years. Through our contacts with local farmworker groups in Texas, we helped Robin and Len locate working children hidden on back country roads in the vast expanse of Texas.

I accompanied Robin and Len on the shoot for a few days, and watched them film dozens of children working with razor-sharp scissors, harvesting onions for about a penny a pound. Temperatures were in the high 90s and sometimes went over 100. One girl, 10, was so sick she could barely talk. One small boy, also 10, worked barefoot at a pace that most men could not match. The work was back-breaking and many families had three generations toiling in the fields. It wasn’t difficult to see what the future held for many children.

Robin and Len worked tirelessly to get their story. Robin stood in the fields with a video camera and SC1several still cameras draped over his shoulders and on his belt, going back and forth, shooting stills in color and black and white. He was so covered in cameras, he almost didn’t look human.

Field shots were followed by visits to some of the homes of the workers 90 miles away. Robin would put in a 10 hour day and then once back at the hotel, chain smoke a few cigarettes and go for a long run. I didn’t know how he did it. “He had no body clock,” said Pharis Harvey. Eventually, “he would just collapse.”

Other films followed. In 2010, he and Dutch journalist Miki Mastrati made The Dark Side of Chocolate, unveiling the hidden child labor and trafficking in West Africa that helps produce the chocolate that we all love. In 2011, he directed The Harvest/La Cosecha, a feature length film that explored the physical and emotional toll on three child farmworkers.

The NGO community heralded these films, organizing public education and advocacy around each of them. Robin pushed tirelessly for solutions to the problems he exposed, regularly participating in our Child Labor Coalition strategy sessions long after his films were made.

Occasionally, he would get groups to pay for his brilliant photography, but when they could not find the budget for them, he shared them for free. He knew we needed the ammunition for the war we were waging. “He went everywhere and shot everything,” noted Harvey.

In the years since Robin and Len started filming Stolen Childhoods, the number of child laborers in the world has dropped by 80 million. I feel certain that Robin Romano played a crucial role in helping bring that decrease about. Robin has been such an integral part of our advocacy it is hard to imagine our work moving forward without him, but we know that he would have demanded that we continue.

If you would like to join the Child Labor Coalition and its members  for our “Remembering Robin” memorial event this Thursday, February 13, in Washington, DC, please RSVP  here.

Fewer children forced to toil in the Uzbek cotton fields – National Consumers League

makiFor several years, the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which NCL co-chairs with the American Federation of Teachers, has worked closely with the Cotton Campaign to reduce child labor and forced child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest. Uzbekistan, run by totalitarian dictator Islam Karimov, is the only country in the world where the central government has recently played a major role in causing large-scale forced child labor. 

For many years, Uzbekistan’s leaders emptied schools and literally forced school children—sometimes very small children—to harvest cotton, a grueling, painful, sometimes dangerous job. The country is one of the largest cotton producers in the world, and Uzbek cotton sometimes finds its way into the U.S. apparel industry, despite a pledge by more than 130 apparel companies that they will not knowingly use Uzbek cotton in their garments.

For years, Uzbek children worked beside similarly conscripted college students and older adults for four to eight weeks at a time, missing much-needed school in the process. The workers were paid so little that their labors should be considered a form of temporary slavery. Those who refused were expelled from school, fired from their jobs, denied public benefits, or worse. Some harvesters have reported being beaten because they did not meet their cotton quota.  The forced labor of children and adults did not enrich struggling local farmers, but benefited the country’s ruling elite.

Despite aggressive advocacy by the Cotton Campaign, Karimov had intractably refused to ease the use of child labor and forced labor. Recently, however, the situation in Uzbekistan has shown signs of changing.

Advocacy by the Cotton Campaign led to a very surprising success last summer, when the US State Department issued its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) country-by-country report and it included a downgrade of Uzbekistan to the lowest tier ranking, signaling that the Uzbek government was simply not doing enough to reduce forced labor and the worst forms of child labor in the country. Although the advocacy community had worked hard and long to bring about this downgrade—and it was completely deserved—it was still a surprise. The US government has many strategic concerns in Uzbekistan related to supply routes for the war in Afghanistan, and it was assumed that the State Department would not be willing to issue the deserved downgrade for fear of alienating Uzbek leaders. Fortunately, the State Department honored the intent of the TIP report and in so doing, applied additional pressure to the Uzbek government.

Soon afterwards, advocacy pressure may have led the Karimov regime to allow, for the first time, an inspection team by the International Labour Organization (ILO) for the 2013 cotton harvest, which began last fall. The Cotton Campaign had been pressing for an ILO inspection for several years. Uzbek officials relented and agreed to allow in an ILO team comprised of staff members, not the “high level” mission that civil society had hoped for that would have included representatives of workers, employers, and civil society. Despite this, getting the ILO in to monitor the harvest was a small victory and an important step towards a fuller monitoring visit.

What did this year’s harvest look like? For the second year in a row, it appears fewer schools with young students were closed and fewer young students were compelled to harvest cotton. However, like last year, a greater number of teens and young adults were forced to go to the fields toil under conditions that are often very difficult. ILO investigators say they did not see “systematic forced child labor,” but acknowledge they saw numerous children working. The advocacy community still believes that children are compelled to work against their wishes, but number of young children is decreasing.

Much work remains to be done in Uzbekistan, a million Uzbeks still toil in forced labor every autumn and the country continues to repress civil society and human rights. The CLC and the international advocacy community, under the leadership of the Cotton Campaign will continue to pressure Uzbek officials to end the forced labor of children and adults in Uzbekistan. We hope to build on the promising developments of last year.

Disturbing phenomenon: Rapid increase of unaccompanied minors entering US – National Consumers League

maki Imagine you are a child, age 13, 14, or 15. Gang members in your school are threatening to beat, kidnap, or kill you. They want money, but you are poor. They threaten to harm you and your family if you don’t pay them large sums of money. There is no way for you to obtain those sums. This is the situation faced by increasing numbers of teens living in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador as gangs spread throughout their countries. 

The kids are scared to death and clinging to a desperate hope: Escape their tormentors, get to the US, find work, and send money back to protect their families. Unfortunately, the numbers of these “unaccompanied minors” is exploding. According to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which is alerting the public about this new trend, the numbers of children expected to cross into the US without adult supervision is expected to be 60,000 this year. This represents nearly a tenfold increase in the number of unaccompanied minors in just three years.

According to a fact-finding delegation led by the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services, there is a “perfect storm” of contributing factors pushing teens to leave their homes and attempt a perilous journey to the US. In addition to the fear of violence from gangs, these “push” factors include:

  • The absence of economic opportunity;
  • The inability of individuals and families to support themselves
  • The lack of quality education and access to education; and
  • The desire to reunify with family members in the US.

The USCCB held a forum on this disturbing trend on January 9th. Among those who attended was a consular official from Guatemala’s diplomatic corp. She told attendees that her country is overwhelmed with the number of migrating children. Since 70 percent of the kids are turned back at the US border, Guatemala is trying to identify funds to deal with the returned migrant youth. They would love to establish programs to help the kids stay in Guatemala, but for the most part the funds are not available.

Migrating teens often make multiple attempts till they make it into the US. USCCB believes that 30 percent eventually make it in, but they often incur significant debts to pay to smugglers—sometimes as much as $5,000 to $8,000. Farms and homes are being mortgaged to pay for these “coyote” fees. So when the teens get to the US, they are often desperate to find work and repay the loans.

The journey to the US is particularly dangerous for the migrating teens. Children are losing limbs as they try to board trains. Teen girls are especially vulnerable. Advocates believe 60% of girls are assaulted or raped on during their trips; nearly one in four become pregnant on the journey. Both boys and girls are vulnerable to being trafficked.

What happens when the children make it to the US? Imagine being here at a very young age and being separated from your family. You may not speak the language. You have no safety net. US nonprofits are struggling to deal with the services needed by this most vulnerable population. From our work on the Child Labor Coalition, we believe that many of these unaccompanied youth may end up performing hand harvest work in agriculture—a difficult, dangerous job. Most of these children will not make it into a school system. Their futures are very uncertain.

What can be done to help the incredibly vulnerable children trying to flee violence and dire poverty in their homelands? The USCCB delegation to the four source countries came up with several recommendations that include providing legal representation to the migrants, considering asylum for those children whose fear of gang violence is credible, having child welfare experts help assess the migrants when they are captured by border agents, and investing in prevention programs in the sending countries. The complete list of recommendations will be available at USCCB’s Refugee and Migration Service publications page soon.