Child labor on farms is under attack again. This time, advocacy groups are targeting child labor on tobacco farms – but not exclusively on just tobacco farms.
Fifty organizations called on President Obama to protect children working in U.S. tobacco fields and gather more data on workers under – and over – age 14. The letter, issued by the Child Labor Coalition, expressed alarm that children are risking acute nicotine poisoning, pesticide poisoning, and other health and safety hazards.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration tried to put in place regulations to protect children working on farms. But the rules were withdrawn due to massive farm community opposition. Current labor laws allow children to work in tobacco fields at the age of 12.
Their "action list"
The groups' "action list" calls for:
* A narrowly tailored regulation specifically prohibiting children from hazardous work in tobacco production and curing.
DOL to collect data regarding all child farmworkers under and over the age of 14, including those hired by labor contractors.
* OSHA to conduct targeted field investigations to ensure that no children under 12 are working in tobacco fields illegally.
* OSHA to issue "health hazard alerts" so employers know how to mitigate risks of nicotine poisoning.
Why the concern?
A recent report by Human Rights Watch found that 75% of 141 child tobacco workers interviewed in North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee reported getting sick while working on U.S. tobacco farms. Many of their symptoms – rashes, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches and dizziness – were consistent with acute nicotine poisoning.
"Children working in tobacco fields are suffering acute nicotine poisoning," said Sally Greenberg, co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition and executive director of the National Consumers League. Several pesticides commonly used in tobacco farming are known neurotoxins. Children's smaller body size increases the exposure dosage absorbed.
"Child tobacco workers reported working long hours, often in extreme heat and without protective gear," added Dr. Lorretta Johnson, CLC co-chair and secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. "Unfortunately, child labor is a common practice, and it's legal."
"Agriculture is already the most dangerous area of employment open to children in the United States," said Norma Flores López, director of the Children in the Fields Campaign for the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. "Tobacco farming is particularly hazardous because of nicotine exposure and toxic pesticides. We also need to prevent injuries from working with machinery and dangerous tools, lifting heavy loads, and climbing to significant heights in curing barns."
Other organizations signing the letter to the president include: AFL-CIO, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, NAACP, National Education Association, New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, United Methodist Church, United Mine Workers of America, Winrock International, and World Vision.