Photo: Tobacco fields
Thousands of children, most of them the offspring of Hispanic immigrants, are working up to 60 hours per week in the tobacco fields in the southern United States where they are exposed to nicotine and pesticides, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
“We work almost all year,” Celia, who began working on tobacco farms in North Carolina when she was only 12, told Efe.
With a lot of effort, she graduated from high school and now, at 20, she works in a bank.
“It’s the planting season, which is done with a machine whose rhythm you have to follow,” she recounted. “Then comes the season of getting rid of the grass, cutting the flower, getting rid of the dry leaves, which is done by hand.”
“It you use gloves, it’s more difficult to do and by doing it faster with (ungloved) hands you end up with your hands smeared with tar,” Celia said, noting that “in this country you have to be at least 18 to buy cigarettes, but you’re already working on the tobacco farms from age 12.”
In its report, “Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in US Tobacco Farming,” Human Rights Watch documents the conditions in which minors work on farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, where 90 percent of U.S. tobacco is grown.
The majority of the child workers are paid the federal minimum wage of $7.50 an hour.
The children reported suffering from vomiting, nausea, headaches and fainting while they are working in the fields, symptoms linked with acute nicotine poisoning, according to HRW.
Eric, a 17-year-old who began working in tobacco when he was 11, said that the same workers must get things such as plastic trash bags to cover themselves when it rains in the fields.
“As the school year ends, children are heading into the tobacco fields, where they can’t avoid being exposed to dangerous nicotine, without smoking a single cigarette” HRW children’s rights researcher Margaret Wurth said.
The report says that the children who work on the farms also suffer from injuries caused by using cutting tools and heavy machinery.
In the United States, regulation of the employment of minors in agriculture is lax.
An attempt three years ago by the federal Labor Department to bar employment of people under 16 on tobacco plantations was beaten back.
HRW sent letters to 10 tobacco companies, all of which responded that they comply with the child labor laws at their plants.
HRW asked the makers of cigarettes and other tobacco products to demand the same compliance on the tobacco farms.