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Hazards issue 133, January-March 2016
US tobacco farms are no place for children

International tobacco companies are failing to protect teenage children from hazardous work in tobacco farming, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.

International tobacco companies are failing to protect teenage children from hazardous work in tobacco farming, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.

A new 72-page report from the group, Teens of the tobacco fields: Child labor in United States tobacco farming, documents the harm caused to 16- and 17-year-olds who work long hours as hired labourers on US tobacco farms, exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, and extreme heat. Nearly all of the teenagers interviewed suffered symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning – nausea, vomiting, headaches, or dizziness – while working on tobacco farms.

“Teenage children too young to legally buy a pack of cigarettes are getting exposed to nicotine while they work on US tobacco farms,” said Margaret Wurth, children’s rights researcher at HRW and co-author of the report. “The US government and tobacco companies should protect everyone under 18 from hazardous work in tobacco farming.”

Some US-based tobacco companies and growers groups took action in 2014 to ban employing children under 16 to work in tobacco farming, but excluded older teens from their policies. Teenagers are still vulnerable to the harmful effects of the work, HRW said. Under international law, the US is obliged to take immediate action to eliminate hazardous labour for those under 18, including any work that is likely to harm their health or safety. Tobacco companies, for their part, have a responsibility to work to prevent and eliminate serious human rights problems in their supply chains, said HRW.

The US Department of Labor has acknowledged the risks to children who work in tobacco farming, but has failed to change US regulations to end hazardous child labour in the crop. “The US government needs to do much more to protect child workers from the dangers of tobacco farming,” HRW’s Wurth said. “The US government and Congress should take urgent action to ban everyone under 18 from hazardous work on tobacco farms.”

 



WORK DRESS A 16-year-old tobacco worker stands in a tobacco field in North Carolina wearing her work clothes. “I don’t feel any different in the fields than when I was 12,” she said. “I get headaches and… my stomach hurts. And like I feel nauseous… I just feel like my stomach is like rumbling around. I feel like I’m gonna throw up.”


HEALTH WARNING  Now 17, this teenager started working in North Carolina’s tobacco fields aged just 13. Her mother taught her how to protect herself in the fields. “None of my bosses or contractors or crew leaders have ever told us anything about pesticides and how we can protect ourselves from them… When I worked with my mom, she would take care of me, and she would like always make sure I was okay. Our bosses don’t give us anything except for our cheques."
NO APPETITE    After three years in the fields, this 17-year-old reports he often loses his appetite, a symptom associated with nicotine exposure. “You don’t feel like eating… Sometimes when I eat, I don’t know, my stomach don’t take it… And then the food that I eat makes me feel sick.”

 

 

PESTICIDE WORRY  These 16-year-old twin sisters sit in their bedroom in their makeshift protective clothing. “We are just working… and the worker is on the tractor spraying almost very close to us,” one told HRW. “But they don’t take us out of that area. They don’t even warn us that it is dangerous. Nothing.”


 

IT HURTS  This 16-year-old tobacco worker sits on his bike outside his family’s mobile home. “When you first eat and start working it hurts in your stomach. It’s hurting,” he said. “You feel like you need to throw up.”

 


NO QUESTIONS  “When I got hired, nobody asked my age. They didn’t care. They just wanted people to work,” this 16-year-old tobacco worker recalls.

 

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Toxic teens

Tobacco firms are failing to protect teenage children from hazardous work in the tobacco fields.

All photos © Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch

Further information
Human Rights Watch
Teens of the tobacco fields: Child labor in United States tobacco farming, HRW, December 2015.

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All photos: Sylvain Cherkaoui/MSF