Thousands of children, mostly children of Latin American immigrants, work between 50 and 60 hours per week in the U.S. tobacco plantations where they exposed to nicotine and pesticides, said Wednesday the group Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The HRW report entitled Tobacco’s Hidden Children documents the conditions under which these children work on plantations in the states of North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, where producers grow about on 90 percent of tobacco in America.
The majority of children are paid the national minimum wage of $7.50 an hour, which in a week may represent between $375 and $400, but they get paid even less for various reasons in some plantations.
Children who work at the tobacco plantations have reported vomiting, nausea, headaches and dizziness while working on plantations. These symptoms are associated with acute nicotine poisoning, the report says.
“We work almost all year,” said one of the child workers, who began working on one of the plantations in North Carolina at the early age of 12. She managed to graduate from high school after some time and is now a bank employee.
Labor Laws in the United States that limit children’s participation in some working situations do not apply in the field of agriculture. In 2011, the Department of Labor issued regulations intended to restrict child labor in agriculture, but the pressures of the private sector in 2012 led to the cancellation of those regulations.
Human Rights Watch sent letters to ten U.S. and international tobacco companies and all responded that tobacco factories comply with child labor laws.
HRW asked manufacturers of cigarettes and other products derived from tobacco to require compliance with the same laws on tobacco plantations.
The report notes that children working on plantations also suffer wounds because they use sharp tools or heavy machinery. Another allegation made by Human Rights Watch is that many children work long hours without receiving pay for overtime and that they do so “in extreme heat without shade or sufficient breaks.”
“The hardest of all the crops we’ve worked in is tobacco. You get tired. It takes the energy out of you. You get sick, but then you have to go right back to the tobacco the next day,” says Dario, a 16-year-old tobacco worker in Kentucky, who was interviewed by HRW last September.
“I would barely eat anything because I wouldn’t get hungry. …Sometimes I felt like I needed to throw up. …I felt like I was going to faint. I would stop and just hold myself up with the tobacco plant,” said Elena, a 13-year-old tobacco worker in the state of North Carolina, when she spoke to Human Rights Watch in May 2013.
Ironically, as it is pointed out by HRW, in the United States it is illegal for children under 18 to smoke cigarettes, but it is fine if they are enslaved to plant and harvest tobacco until their health deteriorates as it is documented on the report. Although American laws do protect children who work in other agricultural practices, they do not recognize the risks that children are exposed to when working in tobacco farms.