WASHINGTON — Rights advocates are tentatively cheering new pledges from a major association of U.S. tobacco growers not to employ children under 16 years old, in response to longstanding concerns over the particularly harmful effects of this work on the health of young people.
In July, the Council for Burley Tobacco passed a resolution stating that it does “not condone the hiring of anyone under the age of 16 for work in tobacco anywhere in the world.” The council represents around 5,000 tobacco growers in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, and Ohio.
The group has also pledged to lobby international growers to adopt similar policies at a summit in Portugal later this month.
“The CBT supports the family farm, but they do not support the practice of having children work in dangerous jobs on the farm,” Rod Kuegel, the council’s president, said in astatement last month. “As a grower member organization, it is critical for the CBT to speak out on this issue.”
Unilateral action on the part of the growers has become necessary due to a prominent loophole in U.S. laws and regulations around farm labor, and because the most influential players in the tobacco industry — the cigarette manufacturers — have long structured the sector so as to allow them to shrug off responsibility for what happens throughout their supply chains.
Unlike every other sector, U.S. law allows children 12 and older to engage in farm work for unlimited periods of time, so long as it is outside of school hours and they have their parents’ permission. Yet, even this age restriction is rescinded for those working on small farms. Further, while federal law generally requires that workers be 18 or older in order to engage in worked deemed hazardous, a child needs to be only 16 years old to do such work on a farm.
Perhaps most importantly, however, U.S. regulators and policymakers have never formally acknowledged the particularly hazardous nature of working with tobacco – a huge, leafy plant imbued with high levels of nicotine, which is toxic even in relatively low doses. Particularly when the plant is full of moisture, working with and harvesting tobacco leaves can quickly result in nicotine poisoning if safety gear and proper procedures aren’t used.
In a landmarkreport published this spring, researchers with Human Rights Watch interviewed several dozen child tobacco laborers, some as young as seven years old, and found widespread reports of symptoms — nausea, vomiting, rashes — that correlate directly with acute nicotine poisoning. Some of the children told investigators they were working up to 60-hour weeks in the tobacco fields.
Human Rights Watch last week acknowledged the Council for Burley Tobacco’s announcement as an “important step.”
Such problems had been documented previously, but the report received significant attention, including from policymakers and the industry. In his statement, the council’s Kuegel noted that the findings had brought the issue of child labor in the sector “to the forefront.”
“Most of these kids aren’t wearing gloves or any formal safety gear. They’re wearing plastic garbage bags to try to keep themselves dry,” Jane Buchanan, the associate director for children’s rights at Human Rights Watch, told MintPress News.
“In a row of plants, the tobacco is usually taller than the kids, so they’re coming in contact over their entire body and absorbing moisture through their clothes. Protective equipment in this situation would be a full-body rain suit, but that’s not practical in the fields in July and August – you’d put workers at risk from heat exhaustion.”
Tobacco work continues to need to be done by hand, and involves a much more elaborate process than is typically involved in, for example, picking vegetables or fruit. Further, the dynamics involved in workers’ bodies absorbing nicotine also lead them to be exposed to higher levels of pesticides while in tobacco fields.
The same concerns apply to adult tobacco workers, of course, and the job remains arduous and potentially dangerous for all harvesters. Yet, the concerns around nicotine’s impact on children are particularly strong.
“Children aren’t just little adults — they’re still developing in terms of both their neurological and reproductive systems,” Buchanan said. “So the potential risks to them are greater than to adults. That’s why we’re not urging the banning of all [tobacco] workers, but just children under 18.”
Indeed, while Human Rights Watch and others are applauding the Council for Burley Tobacco’s new step for voluntarily going beyond what is required by U.S. law, the advocacy group is still disappointed at the definition of “child” the council is using.
While for labor purposes the United States pegs this at 16 years of age, the international standard is 18. As Buchanan suggests, upping the U.S. industry’s threshold to this level could more adequately address health concerns associated with tobacco work done by those whose bodies are still developing.
At this time, the new labor policies adopted by the Council for Burley Tobacco apply only to the growers in those four states that are part of the association. And while this does encompass some 5,000 growers, it does not yet take into account the significant number of tobacco growers in other U.S. states or around the world.
In the aftermath of the Human Rights Watch findings, the largest companies have indicated their concern about the issue. More substantively, they have also started looking for ways to arrive at industry-wide standards.
If such standards were to be set, they would likely be decided upon under a unique multi-stakeholder group called the Fair Labor Practices Group, which includes major manufacturers and growers, as well as union representatives and the Department of Labor. In June, the FLPG set up a new committee focused on concerns around child labor.
Observers, though, say much work remains to be done. Buchanan, for instance, notes that not all companies are equally committed to the issue.
“The biggest thing is for each of these companies to do the right thing,” she said. “They have the evidence now and they can bring their policies up to a standard that can protect children and ensure that all companies and growers are on a level playing field on this issue.”
Those taking part in the FLPG process say that its creation, two years ago, was a significant step forward. Indeed, it constituted the first time that certain major manufacturers had agreed to talk directly with labor representatives. (They had previously refused on the grounds that farm workers are not their employees.)
However, labor organizers say it remains unclear whether the discussions will lead to anything substantive.
“We’ve been in these talks for two years and, as of now, unfortunately, nothing really has happened – lots of conversation and lots of dialogue,” Justin Flores, the vice president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the only labor group taking part in the FLPG process, told MintPress.
“The biggest problem with the group is that the companies say they can’t make broad decisions due to anti-trust considerations. But ultimately, the companies will have to decide what they want to do.”
The FLPG’s working group on child labor is scheduled to meet in October, and some industry members say they expect new momentum on the issue at that time.
“The Council for Burley Tobacco’s recent policy statement is a significant development and will no doubt be the subject of a substantial amount of discussion” at the October meeting, a spokesperson for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco told MintPress. “R.J. Reynolds Tobacco believes the FLPG is the best vehicle to address these issues, and we hope and expect that significant progress can be made prior to the start of the 2015 growing season.”
Broken supply chain
Flores says his group encourages tobacco companies and the broader public not to view the issue of child labor in isolation from other longstanding concerns in the sector. These concerns, he says, include low wages, housing violations, unpaid work, and the broader exclusion of farm workers from federal labor safeguards.
“The fact is, we have a broken supply chain, where farm workers are exploited and companies are not taking full responsibility for how they get their tobacco,” Flores said.
“It is these poor conditions that lead to child labor. Any young farm worker picking tobacco will tell you they’re there because their parents don’t make enough money.”
In July, new legislation was proposed in the House of Representatives that would bar anyone under 18 from working directly with tobacco, on concerns of “particularly hazardous oppressive child labor.” That bill — also inspired by the Human Rights Watch report — has yet to receive a committee hearing, and its prospects in the current congressional session are dim.
But Flores says he has yet to see any legislative proposal that he thinks would address these concerns. The problem, he says, comes down to the tobacco industry’s structure, with the powerful manufacturers maintaining a firm distance from the fields where their raw product is grown.
“Passing a law would put restrictions on the small family farmer. But they don’t have the resources, only the companies have the resources — so there’s no way to legislate,” Flores said.
“Until recently, the companies simply haven’t started getting into their supply chains. Now, they want to do the right thing but they also don’t want to get too involved. But they’re going to have to get over that and realize that these supply chains are theirs — and theirs to fix.”