Child labour in US tobacco supply chain
According to a new report from Human Rights Watch it's fairly common to find children working on US tobacco farms.
Yet while the US has laws to protect kids from the harms of nicotine in cigarettes, there are no restrictions to protect them from nicotine exposure in tobacco fields this despite evidence that such exposure may be especially harmful to children, whose brains and bodies are still developing.
Many children working in the fields describe symptoms that are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, a well-documented condition also known as Green Tobacco Sickness.
Many of the children aged 7 to 17 interviewed by Human Rights Watch laboured for 50 to 60 hours a week in sweltering heat, often without shade. Some described how pesticides – known neurotoxins with the potential to cause long-term neurological and reproductive damage, among other harmful effects – drifted over them as tractors sprayed in fields where they worked, causing their eyes and skin to itch and burn.
Writing on the Human Rights Watch website researcher Margaret Wurth says that teenage workers described hacking down tobacco plants with axes, sometimes cutting their legs and hands, and climbing several stories into the eaves of barns to hang tobacco plants to dry, without any protection from falls.
The researchers found that the world's largest tobacco companies purchase tobacco grown in the United States – companies like Altria Group (parent of Philip Morris USA), British American Tobacco, China National Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco Group, Japan Tobacco Group, Lorillard, Philip Morris International and Reynolds American. Most of those tobacco companies told us that they are concerned about child labour in their supply chains. However researchers also found that their current approaches do not sufficiently protect children from hazardous work and some companies allow for lower standards of protection for children in their US supply chain than for children working on tobacco farms in other countries.
In agriculture in the US, children as young as 12 can legally work for hire for unlimited hours outside of school on a tobacco farm of any size with parental permission, and children younger than 12 can work on small farms owned and operated by family members.
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