An international rights group is pushing the federal government and tobacco industry to take further steps to protect children working on U.S. tobacco farms.
A report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch claims that children as young as 7 are sometimes working long hours in fields harvesting nicotine- and pesticide-laced tobacco leaves under sometimes hazardous conditions. Most of what the group documented is legal, but it wants cigarette makers to push for safety on farms from which they buy tobacco.
Human Rights Watch details findings from interviews with more than 140 children working on farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, where a majority of the country’s tobacco is grown.
“The U.S. has failed America’s families by not meaningfully protecting child farm workers from dangers to their health and safety, including on tobacco farms,” said Margaret Wurth, children’s rights researcher and co-author of the report.
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Human Rights Watch met with many of the world’s biggest cigarette makers and tobacco suppliers to discuss its findings and push them to adopt or strengthen policies to prevent the practices.
The companies say they are concerned about child labor in their supply chains and have developed standards, including requiring growers to provide a safe work environment and adhere to child labor laws, the group said.
“This report uncovers serious child labor abuses that should not occur on any farm, anywhere,” Andre Calantzopoulos, CEO of Philip Morris International Inc., the world’s second-biggest cigarette seller, said in a statement.
Altria Group Inc., owner of the nation’s biggest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, said it wants suppliers to follow the law. But Altria spokesman Jeff Caldwell also said that restricting tobacco work to people 18 and over “is really contrary to a lot of the current practices that are in place in the U.S. and is at odds in these communities where family farming is really a way of life.”
About 736,500 children under 18 were reported to have worked on U.S. farms in 2012, but there are no figures for children working on tobacco farms.
Less than 1 percent of U.S. farmland grows tobacco, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture.
According to Human Rights Watch, U.S. agriculture labor laws allow children to work longer hours at younger ages and in more hazardous conditions than in any other industry. With parent’s permission, children as young as 12 can be hired for unlimited hours outside of school hours on a farm of any size. And there’s no minimum age for children to work on small farms.