New efforts to ban tobacco farm child labor
Two years after the Obama administration backed off a rule that would have banned children from dangerous agriculture jobs, public-health advocates and lawmakers are trying anew to get kids off tobacco farms.
The new efforts were jumpstarted by a Human Rights Watch report in May that said nearly three-quarters of the children interviewed by the group reported vomiting, nausea and headaches while working on tobacco farms. Those symptoms are consistent with nicotine poisoning, often called Green Tobacco Sickness, which occurs when workers absorb nicotine through their skin while handling tobacco plants.
"I think that many members of Congress have been shocked that children are suffering nicotine poisoning from working in US tobacco fields," said Jo Becker, Human Rights Watch's children's rights advocacy director.
"In response, they are pushing tobacco companies to adopt stronger child-labour policies, introducing legislation and urging the Department of Labor to take action."
The approach includes legislation to ban kids under 18 from working on such farms, pursuit of a narrower federal rule than the one that was scuttled and public pressure on tobacco companies from lawmakers and health groups.
There has been some movement within the industry. This month, the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina said it "does not condone the use of child labour" and said tobacco growers and farm-labour contractors should not employ workers under 16 years old.
Philip Morris International, which limits the type of work children can do on tobacco farms, says it would like to see stronger US regulations in this area.
And the Labor Department said in a statement that its Occupational Safety and Health Administration is working to determine best practices to reduce worker exposure to nicotine during tobacco harvests.
In 2011, the Labor Department proposed preventing some children from working in dangerous farm jobs, including cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco. The department tried to pre-empt a backlash from small farmers by excluding from the rule children who worked on their parents' farms.
Nevertheless, the proposal became a political punching bag for Republicans, who called it an impractical, heavy-handed regulation that ignored the reality of small farms.