HRW Exposes American Tobacco Fields Use of Child Labour

B. McPherson

Human Rights Watch has issued a report exposing the plight of child farm workers on America’s tobacco farms. Children as young as seven  have been found working  in the tobacco industry.  As HRW points out in its May report Tobacco’s Hidden Children the law in the States prohibits the purchase and consumption of tobacco products to those under 18, but allows field workers as young as 12 to work tobacco. The usual age for the children to begin work in the fields is 13, usually to help the family earn enough to live.

Most children were paid minimum wage for the area, usually $7.25 an hour, but others were paid piecework depending on productivity. Deductions in the pay were made for drinking water or other unexplained reasons.

All tobacco workers are exposed to nicotine and pesticides. A sickness known as Green Tobacco Sickness which causes nausea, vomiting and headaches is consistent with nicotine poisoning. Those youngsters who are still growing and developing are the most seriously affected. Their nicotine levels in their blood are consistent with an adult tobacco smoker’s readings.

HRW report states that 76% of the tobacco field workers are Hispanic. While labour laws prohibit those younger than 18 from working in hazardous conditions and also limit the number of hours in a week for those in industries such as fast food restaurants, no such protections is afforded the agricultural worker. So in addition to being exposed to toxins, the young farm worker can be expected to handle sharp instruments, climb to dangerous heights without fall protection and operate dangerous machinery.

For example, in agriculture, children under 16 can work at heights of up to 20 feet (over one story) without any fall protection, and 16 and 17-year-olds can work at any height without protection. By contrast, in construction, employers must ensure fall protections for any work taking place over six feet (two meters). Human Rights Watch

The majority of the US tobacco crop is grown in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virgina. From there the tobacco is purchased by brokers and sold to Cigarette makers around the world.

Tobacco is also grown in Canada in Ontario where it is a lucrative cash crop. The federal government’s effort to push the crop into the history books has failed with a rebound in the acreage devoted to it. Much of the harvest is snapped up by Chinese buyers for their growing markets.
Gardening Tip
Tobacco makes an excellent pesticide. If you take a cigarette, strip off the paper and shred the tobacco into about a litre of water, you can spray it on your aphids or other pesky bugs. They die quickly. Makes you think about the wisdom of sucking burning tobacco smoke into your lungs.

Ontario Ministry of Labour   


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