Tobacco Farms Are Poisoning 17-Year-Olds in North Carolina

A new Human Rights Watch campaign calls on the U.S. government to better regulate the industry.
Dec 9, 2015·
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

When the nausea hits, it feels unlike any other kind of sickness. Teenage farmworkers say the symptoms include headaches, dizziness, and a sour taste in the mouth. Doctors have a diagnosis for it: nicotine poisoning, the illness that infects laborers when they absorb tobacco’s active ingredient through their skin.

In a video released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch, teenagers who work in the tobacco fields of North Carolina detail the debilitating health problems they’ve suffered as a result of their employment. Many of the 26 adolescents interviewed by the advocacy group in July said they were as young as 12 or 13 when they began toiling in the fields. All are still under 18, the legal age required to purchase tobacco in the United States. They reported 11- or 12-hour workdays, often in severe heat, without protective gear and without reliable access to water or toilets.

RELATED: Kids as Young as Seven Are Getting Nicotine Poisoning Symptoms From Picking Tobacco

The workers shared their stories in a new Human Rights Watch report that over 72 pages describes human rights violations and criticizes the U.S. government for allowing minors to undertake such risky work. Federal law allows for children as young as 12 to work outside school hours in nonhazardous farm jobs as long as they have parental consent, and only on farms where employees are not subjected to national minimum wage requirements. At age 10, kids are permitted to help harvest crops after school for up to eight weeks if the farm’s owner has a waiver from the Secretary of Labor. If the child’s parent owns the farm, federal law allows the child to work any job, any time, at any age.

Human Rights Watch alleges that working directly with tobacco is hazardous to children and proposes that the age requirement for working on tobacco farms be raised to 18. Its latest campaign comes a year after the organization launched an investigation that found children as young as seven were employed on tobacco farms with their parents in at least four states. Nine of the 10 tobacco companies contacted last year by Human Rights Watch with the findings of its report said they took measures to ban child labor in their supply chains. Two of the country’s largest tobacco companies announced last year that they would prohibit contracting with farms that hire laborers under 16.

Philip Morris International has set forth the most protective set of labor guidelines, according to Human Rights Watch, but many lawmakers feel it’s not enough. In April, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., each introduced bills aimed at labeling any job in which minors work directly with tobacco an act of “hazardous oppressive child labor,” which is prohibited under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This year, a state bill that would have prohibited people under 18 to work directly with tobacco within the state of Virginia was defeated in the House.

Human Rights Watch is calling on Congress to pass such legislation. The group is also pressuring the Department of Labor to update its list of “hazardous” jobs for children to include tobacco farming, and it has even called on President Barack Obama to issue an executive order ending child labor in tobacco fields.