Young Kids Working in US Tobacco Fields

Human Rights Watch issues scathing report

By Kevin Spak,  Newser Staff

Posted May 14, 2014 1:44 PM CDT

(Newser) – Children are toiling in unsafe conditions, suffering everything from breathing problems to vomiting, and putting in 12-hour days and 72-hour weeks. Think we're talking a third-world sweatshop? It's what's happening right now on US tobacco farms, Human Rights Watch alleges in a report today. The group spoke to 141 tobacco farm workers aged 7 to 17, and found that many came in bare-skin contact with tobacco plants. That can cause acute nicotine poisoning—and indeed, 66% of those polled reported symptoms consistent with that, including dizziness, nausea, and headaches.

"On the first day when I was working [chemicals] got on my face a lot and I didn't know until I got home later that my face was burning," one 13-year-old worker tells the BBC. US labor laws protecting child laborers have exceptions for agricultural jobs, the group explains, allowing children of any age to work the fields, and those 12 and older to work unlimited hours. An attempt to change that for tobacco farms died in 2012. HRW shared its findings with tobacco producers, and most expressed concern. Philip Morris, which has the toughest child labor policy, tells Reuters that it believes there's an opportunity to impose an industry-wide standard. The complete report is here.

Farm workers make their way across a tobacco field shrouded in fog near Warsaw, Ky., in this July 10, 2008 file photo.
Farm workers make their way across a tobacco field shrouded in fog near Warsaw, Ky., in this July 10, 2008 file photo.   (AP Photo/Ed Reinke, File)
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