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US, Companies Should Protect Child Tobacco Workers

Poverty No Excuse for Dangerous Child Labor

On Sunday, the Washington Post Magazine published an article with compelling stories of two boys who work on North Carolina tobacco farms to help their families make ends meet. Many parents of child tobacco workers are themselves poorly paid farmworkers. There is no question that the families need the money.

A 16-year-old tobacco worker standing 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 [still] 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.”  © 2015 Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch

But that is all the more reason why we shouldn’t let the United States government and tobacco companies off the hook for this dangerous child labor. Tobacco farming exposes children to nicotine, toxic pesticides, extreme heat, and other dangers that could have long-term consequences on their health. These toxins pose special dangers to children with developing brains and bodies. Child labor can also interfere with schooling and lock children into low-wage, low-opportunity jobs, trapping children in a cycle of poverty.

Over the last three years, I’ve interviewed more than 100 child tobacco workers and very few of them had received education or training about the dangers of the work or how harmful it could be for them in the long-term. We know much more now than we ever have about the dangers of nicotine, and our public policies should catch up with scientific evidence.

It’s the job of policymakers to prohibit children from activities that could harm their health or safety. It’s also the job of the companies buying tobacco from US farmers to ensure that there are no human rights abuses in their supply chains.

The Washington Post Magazine article brought an important issue to the attention of many readers who probably never knew children too young to legally buy a pack of cigarettes are cultivating and harvesting tobacco in the US. But I fear some readers might have come away believing that child labor on tobacco farms is an inevitable symptom of poverty, and a problem that can’t be fixed. Tobacco companies, the Obama administration, and Congress can fix this problem, and the fact that children are suffering harm because they need the money is all the more reason why they urgently need protection.


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