Human Right Watch, which documented working
conditions for children in four U.S. states, said it found many
children on tobacco farms were in direct contact with the plant's
leaves, leading to serious ailments consistent with nicotine
"I didn’t feel well, but I still kept working. I started throwing
up," said one 16-year-old worker, who worked pulling tops off of
tobacco plants to help increase yields, according to Human Rights
Watch, which interviewed 141 youths aged 7 to 17 working on tobacco
farms in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
The group notified 10 tobacco companies of its findings, including
Altria Group Inc, Lorillard Inc, Philip Morris International Inc,
and Reynolds American Inc, and urged them to boycott tobacco from
farms that do not have policies in place to protect workers younger
It also contacted other cigarette makers as well as two tobacco leaf
merchant companies, Alliance One International and Universal Corp.
"We want them to put strong child labor provisions into these
contracts saying: 'We won't buy your tobacco unless you can assure
us that you're not using hazardous child labor,'" Jo Becker, the
group's top advocate for youth issues, told Reuters.
The group said Philip Morris was already developing specific
protections. The company, which makes the popular Marlboro
cigarette, said it was open to industry standards.
"Clearly there is opportunity to align,” Miguel Coleta, its director
of external labor policies, told Reuters.
Other companies said they were developing child labor policies or
reviewing the report. Still, no company explicitly prohibits those
under age 18 from having contact with tobacco, Human Rights Watch
Tom Harkin, chairman of the U.S. Senate's panel on health and labor
issues, said in a statement none of the companies' policies were
sufficient and that he would contact them in coming days.
[to top of second column]
While there is no accurate count of youths working in U.S. tobacco
fields, it is not illegal for children to hold jobs in agriculture,
and many do so out of financial need. Many are Hispanic and come
from low-income families, Becker said.
By law, children cannot work on U.S. farms during school hours, but
they can work in the field at other times, and hours increase
especially in the summer, when school is not in session and the
tobacco crop season is at its peak.
Like other agricultural work, pesticide exposure and injuries are
also concerns, the group said. Many youths also reported working 50
to 60 hours a week and earning less than minimum wage, which is
$7.25 nationally but varies by state.
Current rules prohibit workers younger than 16 from performing
hazardous farm jobs but do not specifically deem tobacco work as
dangerous. The U.S. Labor Department proposed regulations in 2011 to
address the issue, but they were withdrawn a year later, Human
Rights Watch said.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Michele Gershberg)
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