Children suffer in U.S. tobacco farms

Although the U.S. often leads campaigns to reduce child labour in developing nations such as India, this week Washington was embarrassed by a report on the debilitating effect that tobacco plantations have had on the health of children as young as seven years working there.

According to a 138-page study by the Human Rights Watch advocacy group, in the absence of child labour policies that sufficiently protected children from hazardous work on U.S. tobacco farms, those employed there reported vomiting, nausea, headaches and dizziness, “all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning.”

This type of poisoning, often referred to as Green Tobacco Sickness, is said to occur when nicotine is absorbed through their skin while handling tobacco plants, particularly when plants are wet, and in addition to the short-term symptoms, “some research suggests that nicotine exposure during adolescence may have consequences for brain development.”

Based on interviews with 141 child tobacco workers, aged seven to 17, the HRW report noted that many of them also reported working “long hours without overtime pay, often in extreme heat without shade or sufficient breaks, and wore no, or inadequate, protective gear.”

In addition to exposure to tobacco, children working on tobacco farms were said to face other serious risks linked to their use of dangerous tools and machinery, lifting of heavy loads, and proximity to tractors spraying pesticides in nearby fields.

Regarding the latter some of the children interviewed by HRW said that the spray “drifted over them, making them vomit, feel dizzy, and have difficulty breathing and a burning sensation in their eyes.”

Ironically under U.S. labour law, children engaged in agriculture are permitted to work longer hours, at younger ages, and in more hazardous conditions than children in any other industry.

For example children as young as 12 could be hired for unlimited hours outside of school hours on a farm of any size with parental permission, and there is no minimum age for children to work on small farms, HRW explained.

While children in most other economic sectors are required to be 18 to do hazardous work child farm-workers as young as 16 are allowed do jobs deemed hazardous by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Co-author of the report Margaret Wurth argued, “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,” adding, “It’s no surprise the children exposed to poisons in the tobacco fields are getting sick.”

Under U.S. labour law, children engaged in agriculture are permitted to work longer hours, and in more hazardous conditions