Child Labor on Tobacco Farms?>
Be Well

Child Labor on Tobacco Farms

by Keng Lam, MD

In a tobacco field, an 11-year-old girl pulls tobacco leaves off the plants with her hands and separates them with a harvester. She works about 12 hours a day, waking up as early as 6 am. The money she earns helps to support her family.

Her boss brings her lunch every day, but the girl often has to eat it with hands that are covered with tobacco gum. She frequently experiences heat exhaustion, vomiting and nausea. She gets breaks because of her symptoms, but they are often short.

This girl doesn’t live in Asia, Africa or any parts of South America. Her name is Jessica Rodriguez and she lives in Snow Hill, North Carolina. CNN recently covered her story.

Jessica is not the only young worker in this country’s tobacco fields. In May 2014, after interviewing close to 150 child tobacco workers—some as young as seven—the Human Rights Watch published a report, Tobacco’s Hidden Children.

The report, which looks at child tobacco labor in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, details the health problems these youngsters experience. According to the researchers, about 75 percent of the kids have symptoms such as nausea, headache, vomiting, dizziness and difficult breathing. These symptoms are consistent with a type of occupational poisoning called green tobacco sickness (GTS), which often occurs when workers absorb nicotine through their skin as they harvest tobacco.

In the U.S., children under age 14 cannot be legally employed in the U.S. outside of agriculture. However, those as young as 12 can be legally hired to work on tobacco farms for unlimited hours outside of school. Those who are younger than 12 can work on small farms owned or operated by family members.

Some organizations advocate for stronger labor protections for these children, but so far, they seem to have received little sympathy from policy makers and others. “It's hard manual labor, but there's nothing wrong with hard manual labor,” said Republican Kentucky state senator Paul Hornback during an interview with the Associated Press. Some online commenters on CNN agreed, noting that they believe the report is propaganda, that “these children are fine,” and that having children harvest tobacco is appropriate—it’s just “hard work.”

This report reminds me that youngsters often worked as chimneys sweeps in the 18th century in Great Britain. Back then, there was little protection for child laborers, who were employed because they were small enough to fit inside the chimneys. They often suffered bruises, burns and chest inflammation because of their work environments. In the teaching hospitals of the time, doctors often referred to scrotum cancer as Chimney Sweep Cancer because it was only seen in boys who cleaned the chimneys. Eventually, Great Britain's Parliament passed laws to protect the young workers.

Child labor has a long and ugly history around the world and is still common in many places. But we live in a country that purports to protect and value children. These young tobacco workers need our protection and should get it—now.