Human Rights Watch, an independent, international organization that advocates human rights, dignity and humanitarian law released a 138-page report today titled "Tobacco's Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in US Tobacco Farming." The report exposes the TOTALLY LEGAL practice of hiring young kids to work excruciatingly long hours on poisonous US tobacco farms.
"This has not really come to light before...We believe there are thousands of child tobacco workers here in the United States." - Jane Buchanan, co-author of the report and associate director of the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Division
The report documents the conditions of 141 tobacco workers ages 7 to 17 who worked on tobacco farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. The kids work 50 to 60 hours a week in sickening and debilitating heat. Excessive exposure to the nicotine leaves them with painful and prolonged breathing problems, nausea, skin rashes, headaches and irritations in their eyes and mouths.
In November 2013, The Nation documented the experiences of the three Cuello sisters, ages 12, 13 and 14. The girls spent four summers working in North Carolina tobacco fields, earning $7.25 an hour. Each sister spent sixty hours a week doing what every other tobacco worker in the field did - "topping and suckering" - walking through damp and dark tobacco rows, tearing off flowers and small shoots from the stalks.
"They walked the rows, reaching deep into the wet leaves, and before long their clothes were soaked in the early morning dew. None of them knew that the dew represented a health hazard: when wet, tobacco leaves excrete nicotine, which is absorbed by the skin. One study estimated that on a humid day—and virtually every summer day in North Carolina is humid—a tobacco worker can be exposed to the nicotine equivalent of thirty-six cigarettes."
Keep in mind that it is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to purchase cigarettes, but kids as young as 7 can get nicotine poisoning from working in the fields.
Human Rights Watch reports that most employers do not provide protective gear or health and safety training. Children futilely try to cover their skin or keep their clothes dry with garbage bags that they must provide for themselves.
But how can any of this be legal?
In 2012, the Labor Department withdrew regulations that would have prohibited children under 16 from working on tobacco farms. This means that a tobacco grower can legally hire a 13-year-old to work unlimited hours outside of school.
The Obama administration wishes to respect "the rural way of life, especially the role that parents and other family members play in passing those traditions down through the generations."