Child Workers Getting Sick on US Tobacco Farms

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A new report highlights the shocking working conditions of children harvesting tobacco in America.

A 7-year-old is too young to smoke in the U.S., but not too young to toil away on a tobacco farm.

Human Rights Watch issued a new report detailing the deplorable working conditions suffered by child tobacco workers in the U.S. The report said children as young as 7 labor for up to 60 hours a week in extreme heat, performing unsafe duties using dangerous tools and equipment.

As if that’s not bad enough, the report details the health risks associated with working in the tobacco fields. The children interviewed by the New York-based international rights group reported health issues including: nausea, vomiting, headaches, loss of appetite, dizziness, skin rashes, and difficulty breathing – all symptoms of acute nicotine poisoning, which can occur when workers absorb nicotine through their skin.

U.S. agriculture labor laws allow children ages 12 and older to labor for unlimited hours outside of school on any size farm. There is no minimum age requirement on small farms.

Nevertheless, the working conditions children are experiencing on American tobacco farms is inexcusable. According to Time:

“The U.S. has failed America’s families by not meaningfully protecting child farmworkers from dangers to their health and safety, including on tobacco farms,” said Margaret Wurth, HRW children’s rights researcher and co-author of the report.

“Farming is hard work anyway, but children working on tobacco farms get so sick that they throw up, get covered by pesticides and have no real protective gear.”

Human Rights Watch is urging the world’s biggest cigarette makers and tobacco suppliers to require tobacco farms they work with to strictly adhere to child labor laws, as well as provide a safe working environment for child tobacco workers.

According to The Associated Press, the Labor Department proposed prohibiting children under 16 from working on tobacco farms in 2011, but that change was withdrawn in 2012.

While stricter regulations may seem like a no-brainer, there are actually some people who are against expanding protections for child tobacco workers. The AP said:

Republican Kentucky state Sen. Paul Hornback, who started work[ing] in tobacco fields when he was 10 and now farms about 100 acres of tobacco in Shelby County, Ky., said he adheres to federal regulations to keep his workers safe but doesn’t believe further restrictions are needed.

“People get pretty extreme about trying to protect everybody from everything,” Hornback said. “It’s hard manual labor, but there’s nothing wrong with hard manual labor.”

I disagree, Mr. Hornback. A 7-year-old, or any child for that matter, does not belong in a tobacco field, laboring longer hours than many adults, all the while absorbing a toxic substance. It is hard for me to fathom that this is occurring in the U.S.

There are secondhand smoking laws in place across the country, but nothing to protect child workers in tobacco fields? How does this make sense?

What do you think about the child tobacco workers in the U.S.? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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