Tobacco’s Hidden Children

Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming

May 14, 2014
Vivamus enim erat, viverra eget convallis vel, viverra eu quam. Fusce commodo cursus ligula, vel ullamcorper felis molestie non. Vivamus in consequat ligula, vel tincidunt.

Summary

Children working on tobacco farms in the United States are exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, and other dangers. Child tobacco workers often labor 50 or 60 hours a week in extreme heat, use dangerous tools and machinery, lift heavy loads, and climb into the rafters of barns several stories tall, risking serious injuries and falls. The tobacco grown on US farms is purchased by the largest tobacco companies in the world.

The hardest of all the crops we’ve worked in is tobacco. You get tired. It takes the energy out of you. You get sick, but then you have to go right back to the tobacco the next day. — Dario A., 16-year-old tobacco worker in Kentucky, September 2013

Ninety percent of tobacco grown in the US is cultivated in four states: North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia [1]. Between

May and October 2013, Human Rights Watch interviewed 141 child tobacco workers, ages 7 to 17, who worked in these states in 2012 or 2013. Nearly three-quarters of the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported the sudden onset of serious symptoms—including nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness, skin rashes, difficulty breathing, and irritation to their eyes and mouths—while working in fields of tobacco plants and in barns with dried tobacco leaves and tobacco dust. Many of these symptoms are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning.

Based on our findings set out in this report, Human Rights Watch believes that no child under age 18 should be permitted to perform work in which they come into direct contact with tobacco in any form, including plants of any size or dried tobacco leaves, due to the inherent health risks posed by nicotine and the pesticides applied to the crop. The US government, US Congress, and tobacco manufacturing and tobacco leaf supply companies should all take urgent steps to progressively remove children from such tasks in tobacco farming.

Ninety percent of tobacco grown in the US is ctttultivated in four states: North Caroline, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.

In the US, it is illegal for children under 18 to buy cigarettes or other tobacco products. However, US law fails to recognize the risks to children of working in tobacco farming. It also does not provide the same protections to children working in agricultureas it does to children working in all other sectors. In agriculture, children as young as 12 can legally work for hire for unlimited hours outside of school on a tobacco farm of any size with parental permission, and children younger than 12 can work on small farms owned and operated by family members. Outside of agriculture, the employment of children under 14 is prohibited, and even 14 and 15-year-olds can only work in certain jobs for a limited number of hours each day.

Tobacco farmed in the US enters the supply chains of at least eight major manufacturers of tobacco products who either purchase tobacco

Audio
Bridget F., 15, works for hire on tobacco farms with her mother, who is the crew leader, and her siblings.

through direct contracts with tobacco growers or through tobacco leaf supply companies. These include Altria Group, British American Tobacco, China National Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco Group, Japan Tobacco Group, Lorillard, Philip Morris International, and Reynolds American. Some of these companies manufacture the most popular brands of cigarettes sold in the US, including Marlboro, Newport, Camel, and Pall Mall. All companies thata purchase tobacco in the US directly or indirectly have responsibilities to ensure protection of children from hazardous labor, including on tobacco farms, in their supply chains in the US and globally.

Vivamus enim erat, viverra eget convallis vel, viverra eu quam. Fusce commodo cursus ligula, vel ullamcorper felis molestie non. Vivamus in consequat ligula, vel tincidunt.

Child tobacco workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report typically described beginning to work on tobacco farms at age 13, often together with their parents and older siblings. Only very few worked on family farms. The children we interviewed were mostly the sons and daughters of Hispanic immigrants,

though they themselves were frequently US citizens. Regardless of employment or immigration status, the children described working in tobacco to help support their families’ basic needs or to buy essential items such as clothing, shoes, and school supplies. For example, 15-year-old Grace S. told Human Rights Watch why she decided to start working in tobacco farming in North Carolina: I just wanted to help out my mom, help her with the money.

Most children interviewed by Human Rights Watch were seasonal workers who resided in states where tobacco was grown and worked on farms near their homes or in neighboring areas, primarily or exclusively during the summer months when tobacco is cultivated. We also spoke to several children who migrated to and within the United States by themselves or with their families to work in

I would barely eat anything because I wouldn’t get hungry.
… Sometimes I felt like I needed to throw up. … I felt like I was going to faint. I would stop and just hold myself up with the tobacco plant. — Elena G., 13-year-old tobacco worker in North Carolina, May 2013
tobacco and other crops. There is no comprehensive estimate of the number of child farmworkers in the US.

Tobacco is a labor-intensive crop, and the children interviewed described participating in a range of tasks, including: planting seedlings, weeding, “topping” tobacco to remove flowers, removing nuisance leaves (called “suckers”), applying pesticides, harvesting tobacco leaves by hand or with machines, cutting tobacco plants with “tobacco knives” and loading them onto wooden sticks with sharp metal points, lifting sticks with several tobacco plants, hanging up and taking down sticks with tobacco plants in curing barns, and stripping and sorting dried tobacco leaves.

Health and Safety Risks in Tobacco Farming

Children interviewed by Human Rights Watch in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia frequently described feeling seriously, acutely sick, while working in tobacco farming. 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.

Emilio R., a 16-year-old seasonal worker in eastern North Carolina, who plans to study to be an engineer, 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.”

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. Public health research has found dizziness, headaches, nausea, and vomiting are the most common symptoms of acute nicotine poisoning. Though the long-term effects of nicotine absorption through the skin are unknown, public health research on smoking indicates that nicotine exposure during adolescence may have long-term adverse consequences for brain development. Public health research indicates that non-smoking adult tobacco workers have similar levels of nicotine in their bodies as smokers in the general population.

In addition, many children told Human Rights Watch that they saw tractors spraying pesticides in the fields in which they were working or in adjacent fields. They often described being able to smell or feel the chemical spray as it drifted over them, and reported burning eyes, burning noses, itchy skin, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, shortness of breath, redness and swelling of their mouths, and headache after coming into contact with pesticides. Yanamaria W., 14, who worked on tobacco farms in central Kentucky in 2013 with her parents and 13-year-old brother, told Human Rights Watch:

I was in the field when they started spraying… . I can stand the heat for a long time, but when they spray, then I start to feel woozy and tired. Sometimes it looks like everything is spinning.

While pesticide exposure is harmful for farmworkers of all ages, children are uniquely vulnerable to the adverse effects of toxic exposures as their bodies are still developing, and they consume more water and food, and breathe more air, pound for pound, than adults. Tobacco production involves application of a range of chemicals at different stages in the growth process, and several pesticides commonly used during tobacco farming are known neurotoxins. According to public health experts and research, long-term and chronic health effects of pesticide exposure include respiratory problems, cancer, neurologic deficits, and reproductive health problems.


Recommendations



Recommendations

To the US Congress

Regarding Child Labor

  • Enact legislation prohibiting children under age 18 from engaging in hazardous work on tobacco farms in the United States, including any work in which children come into contact with tobacco plants of any size or with dried tobacco leaves.
  • Amend the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to:
    • apply the same age and hour requirements to children working in agriculture as already apply to all other working children: prohibit the employment of children under age 13 ; limit the number of hours that children ages 14 and 15 can legally work to three hours per day on a school day and 18 hours per week during a school week; eight hours per day on a non-school day and 40 hours per week when school is not in session ; and prohibit before-school work by children ages 15 and younger;
    • raise the minimum age for particularly hazardous work in agriculture from 16 to 18, in line with existing standards in all other industries;
    • incorporate the Environmental Protection Agency’s Worker Protection Standard, 40 C.F.R. Part 170, into the child labor regulations, thereby protecting children working in agriculture not only from pesticides with acute effects (such as nausea, skin rashes, and dizziness), but also from those with chronic or long-term effects (such as cancer and interference with sexual reproduction);
    • require agricultural employers to report work-related deaths, serious injuries, and serious illnesses to the US Department of Labor in order to collect and publish better statistics than are currently available about such incidents; and
    • require the US Department of Labor to submit to Congress an annual report on work-related deaths, injuries, and illnesses of children working in agriculture, including an evaluation of the data that highlights, among other things, safety and health hazards and the extent and nature of child labor violations.
  • Provide sufficient support to programs, such as those administered by the Department of Education’s Office of Migrant Education, to remove barriers to the school enrollment, attendance, and achievement of child farmworkers and ensure that child farmworkers have access to and benefit from the same appropriate public education, including public preschool education, provided to other children.

Regarding Labor Rights

  • Repeal the sections of the Fair Labor Standards Act that exempt all agricultural orkers from overtime pay provisions.
  • Repeal the sections of the Fair Labor Standards Act that exempt certain agricultural employers from paying workers the federal minimum wage.
  • Eliminate the exclusion of farmworkers from the National Labor Relations Act and acknowledge that, like all other workers, they have the right to collective bargaining.
  • Halt the yearly approval of a special provision in the US Department of Labor appropriations act that exempts almost all farms with 10 or fewer employees from the jurisdiction of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

II. Child Tobacco Workers in the United States
Vivamus enim erat, viverra eget convallis vel, viverra eu quam. Fusce commodo cursus ligula, vel ullamcorper felis molestie non. Vivamus in consequat ligula, vel tincidunt.
Vivamus enim erat, viverra eget convallis vel, viverra eu quam. Fusce commodo cursus ligula, vel ullamcorper felis molestie non. Vivamus in consequat ligula, vel tincidunt.
II

Child Tobacco Workers in
the United States

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that hundreds of thousands of children under age 18 work in US agriculture each year, but there is no comprehensive estimate of the number of child farmworkers in the US. In 2012, farm operators reported directly hiring 130,232 children under age 18 to work on crop and livestock farms, and an additional 388,084 children worked on the farms on which they resided. However, these figures significantly underrepresent the total number of children working in agriculture as they exclude children hired by farm labor contractors or employed informally. The total number of children who work on tobacco farms each year is also unknown.

Child Tobacco Workers

The children interviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report were overwhelmingly of Hispanic ethnicity. Many children we interviewed were US citizens, consistent with the findings of a 2013 pilot study of North Carolina child farmworkers in which 78 percent were US citizens. Other children we interviewed were born outside of the United States and had migrated from other countries with their families, or in some instances, by themselves. Regardless of the immigration status of children, the parents of most children interviewed for this report were living in the US without authorization. Child tobacco workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch described working in a diversity of circumstances. The vast majority worked for hire, employed by official or unofficial farm labor contractors, labor subcontractors, or tobacco growers. A small number of children that we interviewed worked on farms owned by family members. Most of the children who stated that they worked on family farms also worked for hire on farms owned by other tobacco growers.Most children interviewed by Human Rights Watch resided in states where tobacco was grown and worked on farms near their homes. These children overwhelmingly

Race or Ethnicity Number Percent
Black 14,178 48.6%
Latino 9,121 31.3%
White 4,908 16.8%
Col Span Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing
Total 29,147 100%
Race or Ethnicity Number Percent
Black 14,178 48.6%
Latino 9,121 31.3%
White 4,908 16.8%
Total 29,147 100%
Race or Ethnicity Number Percent
Black 14,178 48.6%
Latino 9,121 31.3%
White 4,908 16.8%
Total 29,147 100%
Table 1:
Demographics of the 2003–2004 Marijuana arrest cohort
Source: New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Note: Cohort consists of individuals arrested in New York City in 2003–2004 with top charge of marijuana possession in public view (PL 221.10) who had no prior convictions and whose case terminated in an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. Subsequent felony convictions counted until June 2011.

attend public school full time in their communities, often working primarily, or exclusively, during the summer months. The median age at which children we interviewed began working in tobacco was 13. Some of these children worked together with their parents and siblings; others worked without their parents, sometimes with crews composed almost entirely of children. Many seasonal child farmworkers in North Carolina told Human Rights Watch that they worked in tobacco as well as other crops including, variously, sweet potatoes, blueberries, cucumbers, and watermelons.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed 16 child migrant workers who move within the United States to work in different agricultural crops, including tobacco. Some of these children said that they travel with their families and attend schools in different states, working only during the summers, after school, and on weekends. Other migrant children stated that they work year round and do not attend school, as described below.

Several children interviewed who had migrated without authorization to the US with their families reported that they had applied for or received deferred action through a federal program designed to provide temporary reprieve from deportation and employment authorization to individuals under age 30 who migrated to the US as children, attended school, have continuously resided in the US for a minimum of five years, and met several other eligibility criteria. Human Rights Watch has argued that “deferred action for childhood arrivals,” by considering a person’s positive attachments to the country of residence in deportation decisions, represents a rational, if incremental, shift in US immigration policy. Human Rights Watch has called on the US government to enact more permanent and comprehensive immigration reforms.

Why Children Work

Nearly all of the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch, whether seasonal or migrant, citizens or unauthorized, reported that they worked in tobacco to provide for themselves and their families. The National Agricultural Workers Survey, a random survey of crop workers in the US, indicates that farmworkers are overwhelmingly poor: in 2008-2009, the median annual income among US crop workers was $18,750. A 2008 report from the US Department of Agriculture found poverty among farmworkers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees in the United States. Most children interviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report started working in tobacco farming, and in some cases in other crops as well, to earn money for their basic needs: clothes, shoes, school supplies. Parents of child workers said that their children’s minimum wage earnings helped to supplement meager family incomes.

Economic Need

Gabriella G., 42, is a mother of six, and five of her children have worked in tobacco fields in North Carolina. She moved to North Carolina after leaving an abusive partner and is now a single mother. When asked why her children started working in tobacco, she said:

What I earn is not sufficient for my family. My children have to work to buy school supplies, clothes, the things you have to pay for at school.

Her daughter Natalie G., 18, started working in tobacco at age 12. She told Human Rights Watch why she started working:

I saw what my mom was going through, how tired she was, and we wanted to help. … There was motivation to work because my mom was working and we were alone without her. And seeing my mom come beaten down, sunburned, tired. We were raised not to leave someone behind.
Natalie’s younger sister, Elena G., also started working in tobacco at age 12. She told Human Rights Watch how she used her earnings:
I would give my mom more than half of my check for the bills. And then I would help her buy food. And whatever I had left, I’d buy my little brother something. I wanted to buy clothes, but I didn’t really have the chance to.
Other children described similar reasons for working in tobacco. Raul D., a 13-year-old worker in eastern North Carolina, told Human Rights Watch, “I work so that I have money to buy clothes for school and school supplies, you know, like crayons and stuff. I’ve already bought my backpack for next year.” Adriana F., 14, works for hire on tobacco farms in Kentucky with her parents and her four brothers. When asked how she used her earnings, she told Human Rights Watch, “I use the money for school supplies and to go on field trips.” Jerardo S., 11, told Human Rights Watch he started working on tobacco farms in Kentucky to save for his college education, saying, “I told my mom I would save it for the college or university where I want to go.”

Lack of Other Opportunities

In addition to economic need, children, particularly those living in the US without authorization, reported working in tobacco because they lacked other employment and summer educational opportunities in their rural communities. Blanca A., like many farmworker children, was born in Mexico and works without authorization, even though she has lived in the United States for many years. She told Human Rights Watch:

Most of my friends have jobs in the new sports shop, at McDonald’s or Bojangles, in the mall selling stuff, but usually for those jobs they ask for [your] social security [number].

Claudio G., a 16-year-old unauthorized worker in North Carolina, told Human Rights Watch:

Other children said that they were too young to be hired to work other jobs. Alan F., a 15-year-old worker in eastern North Carolina who hopes to attend college after graduating from high school, told Human Rights Watch that he would continue working in tobacco until he was older. He said:

There’s plenty of jobs, but I mean, I ain’t got the age. If I was older, I’d want to be a mechanic or work in construction or something like that.

Of the nine children interviewed by Human Rights Watch who worked on tobacco farms owned by family members, most had other career aspirations. For example, 15-year-old Bradley S., who started working on tobacco farms owned by his father and grandfather in eastern Kentucky at 8, told Human Rights Watch, “When I grow up, I want to be an engineer.”

Acknowledgements

Acknowledgements

The report was researched and written by Margaret Wurth , researcher in the Children’s Rights Division, and Jane Buchanan, associate director of the Children’s Rights Division, at Human Rights Watch. The report was edited by Jo Becker, advocacy director of the Children’s Rights Division; James Ross, legal and policy director; and Babatunde Olugboji, deputy program director. Joe Amon, director of the Health and Human Rights Division; Zama Coursen-Neff, director of the Children’s Rights Division; Arvind Ganesan, director of Business and Human Rights Division; and Grace Meng, US program researcher, also reviewed and commented on the report.

The report was researched and written by James Ross , researcher in the Children’s Rights Division, and Jane Buchanan, associate director of the Children’s Rights Division, at Human Rights Watch. The report was edited by Jo Becker, advocacy director of the Children’s Rights Division; James Ross, legal and policy director; and Babatunde Olugboji, deputy program director. Joe Amon, director of the Health and Human Rights Division; Zama Coursen-Neff, director of the Children’s Rights Division; Arvind Ganesan, director of Business and Human Rights Division; and Grace Meng, US program researcher, also reviewed and commented on the report.