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HRW documents the shocking conditions on tobacco farms in the US, where child workers are exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides and other dangers.
Human Rights Watch's recent report, Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in US Tobacco Farming, documents conditions under which children - ages seven to 17 - work on tobacco farms. Research was done in the four states where 90% of US tobacco is grown: North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.
Children reported vomiting, nausea, headaches, and dizziness while working on tobacco farms, all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning. Many also said they worked long hours without overtime pay, often in extreme heat without shade or sufficient breaks, and wore no, or inadequate, protective gear.
Many of the pesticides used in tobacco production are known neurotoxins, poisons that alter the nervous system. The long-term effects of childhood pesticide exposure can include cancer, problems with learning and cognition, and reproductive health issues. Children are especially vulnerable because their bodies and brains are still developing.
Children working in tobacco farming face other serious risks as well, Human Rights Watch said. They may use dangerous tools and machinery, lift heavy loads, and climb several storeys without protection to hang tobacco in barns. Children also reported that tractors sprayed pesticides in nearby fields. They said the spray drifted over them, making them vomit, feel dizzy, and have difficulty breathing and a burning sensation in their eyes.
Almost none of the children Human Rights Watch interviewed said that employers had given them health and safety training or protective gear. Instead, children typically covered themselves with black plastic garbage bags in an attempt to keep their clothes dry when they worked in fields wet with dew or rain.
Under US labour law, children working in agriculture can work longer hours at younger ages, and in more hazardous conditions than children in any other industry. Children as young as 12 can 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. At 16, child farmworkers can do jobs deemed hazardous by the US department of labour. Children in all other sectors must be 18 to do hazardous work. Regulations proposed by the labour department in 2011 would have prohibited children under 16 from working on tobacco farms, but they were withdrawn in 2012.
We highlight this report in recognition of June 12 being world child labour day.