I am writing in response to the recent report released by Human Rights Watch titled “Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in U.S. tobacco farming.”
As an advocate for farmworker children for five years, I agree that it is time for U.S. law to protect farmworker children just as it does for children working in every other industry.
Many people state that they are opposed to amending the current law to afford child farmworkers the same protections as children working in all other industries because it “threatens small family farms.” I come from a family of tobacco farmers in Eastern Tennessee. I even have a photo in my house where I am sitting on the back of a tobacco planter at 11 years old. Working on my family’s farm taught me good work ethic and discipline.
So, I will be the first to tell you that I support children being able to work on their family’s farm. However, I don’t support allowing children as young as 12 to work on corporate farms harvesting tobacco, and I don’t support children under the age of 18 being able to work in any hazardous occupation — including working in tobacco. Working in tobacco fields is hazardous.
As the article stated, children are getting sick from working in tobacco and are exposed to harmful pesticides that can cause long term health problems. While I worked on my family’s farm, I was never allowed to harvest the tobacco until I was much older and when we grated the tobacco, we always had to wear protective gloves and clothing. I can also assure you that my granddaddy wasn’t spraying any pesticides in the field beside us when we were working.
Children currently working in tobacco around this state are allowed to work during every step of the tobacco harvest which increases their exposure to nicotine and pesticides. Some reading this may be thinking, “Well, my dad and his dad grew up working in the tobacco fields from the time they could walk.” Times have changed. We now better understand the harmful effects of nicotine and pesticides.
Also, the family farms of older generations are becoming more obsolete and large corporate farms are taking over. That means there is less supervision of children working in tobacco, less training, and more chemical exposure due to larger acreage.
I urge all U.S. legislators to amend the current U.S. law to afford child farmworkers the same protections as all other industries for child workers and to update the Hazardous Occupations Orders to include any work where children come into direct contact with tobacco. I also ask that everyone read the report and sign the petition to stop this antiquated practice (links to both can be found at www.ncfield.org).
This is not the 1900s. This is 2014. It is time that our law looked like it.
Rachel L. Wright