WASHINGTON May 14 U.S. children working in
domestic tobacco fields regularly suffer from breathing
problems, nausea and other ailments, an international rights
group said in a report on Wednesday, urging the industry to
develop tougher protections for its youngest workers.
Human Right Watch, which documented working conditions for
children in four U.S. states, said it found many children on
tobacco farms were in direct contact with the plant's leaves,
leading to serious ailments consistent with nicotine poisoning.
"I didn't feel well, but I still kept working. I started
throwing up," said one 16-year-old worker, who worked pulling
tops off of tobacco plants to help increase yields, according to
Human Rights Watch, which interviewed 141 youths aged 7 to 17
working on tobacco farms in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee
The group notified 10 tobacco companies of its findings,
including Altria Group Inc, Lorillard Inc, Philip
Morris International Inc, and Reynolds American Inc
, and urged them to boycott tobacco from farms that do
not have policies in place to protect workers younger than 18.
It also contacted other cigarette makers as well as two
tobacco leaf merchant companies, Alliance One International
and Universal Corp.
"We want them to put strong child labor provisions into
these contracts saying: 'We won't buy your tobacco unless you
can assure us that you're not using hazardous child labor,'" Jo
Becker, the group's top advocate for youth issues, told Reuters.
The group said Philip Morris was already developing specific
protections. The company, which makes the popular Marlboro
cigarette, said it was open to industry standards.
"Clearly there is opportunity to align," Miguel Coleta, its
director of external labor policies, told Reuters.
Other companies said they were developing child labor
policies or reviewing the report. Still, no company explicitly
prohibits those under age 18 from having contact with tobacco,
Human Rights Watch said.
Tom Harkin, chairman of the U.S. Senate's panel on health
and labor issues, said in a statement none of the companies'
policies were sufficient and that he would contact them in
While there is no accurate count of youths working in U.S.
tobacco fields, it is not illegal for children to hold jobs in
agriculture, and many do so out of financial need. Many are
Hispanic and come from low-income families, Becker said.
By law, children cannot work on U.S. farms during school
hours, but they can work in the field at other times, and hours
increase especially in the summer, when school is not in session
and the tobacco crop season is at its peak.
Like other agricultural work, pesticide exposure and
injuries are also concerns, the group said. Many youths also
reported working 50 to 60 hours a week and earning less than
minimum wage, which is $7.25 nationally but varies by state.
Current rules prohibit workers younger than 16 from
performing hazardous farm jobs but do not specifically deem
tobacco work as dangerous. The U.S. Labor Department proposed
regulations in 2011 to address the issue, but they were
withdrawn a year later, Human Rights Watch said.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Michele Gershberg)