It is illegal in the U.S. for someone under the age of 18 to buy a pack of cigarettes, but it is legal for a child as young as 11-years-old to work in a tobacco field.

A recent study done by Human Rights Watch reported that many children start to work in tobacco fields once the school year is over. Many of these kids are children of Hispanic immigrants who live in cities near the fields.

Many of the working children have had acute nicotine poisoning symptoms. These symptoms include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headache, dizziness, irritation and difficulty breathing.

Child laborers are more prone to getting acute nicotine poisoning when the tobacco leaves are wet and dewy. Children can absorb up to 50 cigarettes worth of nicotine through their skin on rainy days.

It was reported by Human Rights Watch that children are getting a drift of the pesticides that are being sprayed on nearby fields. The child laborers claimed that when the spray drifted their way they began to vomit and feel dizzy; it became difficult for them to breathe and they started to have a burning sensation in their eyes.

Children are more prone to having long-term effects from pesticides since their bodies are still developing. The long-term effects include cancer, problems with learning and cognition and reproductive health issues.

Aside from exposure to pesticides from other fields nearby, there were also many accidents due to sharp tools. Often times children are put in danger by having to work with big tools and machinery, lift heavy loads and climb up heights to hang tobacco in barns.

Child laborers working on tobacco farms often work long hours and do not get paid overtime. In addition, they often work in extremely hot weather conditions without sufficient breaks and do not wear protective gear.

Many child laborers said they had no access to toilets or a sink to wash their hands, which meant they still had pesticide residue while they were taking their lunch breaks.

Here are a few listed facts that were included in a report done by the Human Rights Watch. Of 133 children interviewed:

  • 53 percent saw tractors spraying pesticides in the fields they were working for or in the nearby fields.
  • 68 percent reported symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning: nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness and loss of appetite.
  • 73 percent reported getting sick with nausea, headaches, respiratory illness, skin conditions and other symptoms
  • 13 is the median age that children started working at.
  • Most children worked 50-60 hours per week.
  • $1.5 billion is the total value of tobacco leaf production in the U.S. in 2012 and $7.25 is the hourly wage most children reported earning.

Not only do child workers suffer from physical and health conditions, but also in their everyday lives, including hunger, stunted growth and higher school dropout rates.

 — Priscilla Rodarte

Sources: CNN 1, CNN 2, Human Rights Watch, Labor Rights
Photo: Politix

Child Labor
Children have always been a source of cheap labor, and the United States is no exception. This article recounts the history of child labor in the United States, and the steps taken to fight against its practice.


A History of Child Labor in the United States


In the colonial period, child labor was commonplace. Children were expected to assist their parents and work on the family farm. Young boys (ages 10-14) later became apprentices in different trades.

The Industrial Revolution, however, marked a new level of intensity for young workers. Children spent all day in factories with poor and dangerous conditions. Their small size allowed them to climb in and out of old factory machines. In addition to factory work, some employers used children in mines. These young workers were preferred because they were easy to control and direct. Salaries for children were also much less than those for adult workers. The large influx of immigrants into the United States in the mid 1800s led to an additional increase in child labor.

The most common reason for child labor in the United States during the Industrial Revolution was to support the family. Instead of going to school, children went to work in factories. During the nineteenth century some attempts were made to reform child labor laws and improve general working conditions. Education reformers promoted the idea that getting a primary school education was necessary to achieve self-advancement and a stronger nation. As a result, a number of states began to implement minimum wage and school attendance laws. However, they contained many loopholes and were rarely enforced.

American reformers have been actively working to fight child labor in the United States since the early 1900s. In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee was established. Along with smaller state child labor committees, the national chapter adopted a policy of “mass political action”–research reports, investigations by experts, dramatic photographs depicting oppressed children in factories, active lobbying, pamphlets, mass mailings and leaflets. However, progress was slow and often frustrating.

Committees identified state legislatures as the best vehicle to achieve reform. During the Progressive Era, many state laws regulating child labor were passed. Due to resistance from the southern states, federal child labor bills were later passed through Congress in 1916 and 1918. However, the Supreme Court ruled that they were unconstitutional.

Reformers decided to lobby for an amendment that would permit the government to pass a federal child labor law. The proposed amendment was passed through Congress in 1924, but several states failed to ratify it because of the conservative political environment at the time. Once the Great Depression hit America in the 1930s, child labor nearly disappeared as all the jobs went to adults instead of children. The National Industrial Recovery Act further placed regulations on child labor, and the Fair Labor Standards Act set federal minimum wage and maximum work hours. Children under 16 were not permitted to work in the manufacturing and mining sectors.

Due to the advancements in factory technology and the increase in required years of schooling, the issue of child labor has become largely insignificant. Violations of child labor laws still occur today, but the United States has definitely come a long way – “one of the more remarkable changes in the social and economic life of the nation over the last two centuries.”

Given its own struggle with child labor, the United States has taken action to end it abroad through initiatives like the Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking (OCFT) – a division of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB). The OCFT was founded in 1993 as part of a congressional request to investigate and report on child labor practices around the world. Using research conducted by the OCFT, ILAB maintains a list of international goods produced by child labor or forced labor: fireworks from China, corn from Bolivia, bricks from Burma, carpets from India, garments from Argentina and more. In addition to publishing reports like “Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor,” the OCFT assists with the development of labor legislation and supports relevant projects; so far, more than 270 projects have been funded, benefiting children in over 90 countries. Through the OCFT, the United States hopes to collaborate with other nations in order to strengthen the enforcement of child labor laws and raise global awareness of the issue.

– Kristy Liao

Sources: ContinueToLearn, Department of Labor 1, Department of Labor 2, History
Photo: Flickr

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 had outlawed child labor in America; however, individuals have managed to find their way around the law, effectively enslaving children, the vast majority of whom are migrant workers, within these laborious jobs. While the 1938 Act outlawed child labor in settings such as an office or a restaurant, the law left the prospect of employing child laborers on farms completely legal. In the United States, many child laborers still toil away on farms, being left vulnerable to heat exhaustion, heavy machinery and dehydration.

According to NBC, thousands of children, some as young as 8 years old, are being exploited, forced to endure grueling hours and equally grueling conditions on farms. These children work for little to no cost in order for the produce industry to put food on America’s table.

Oftentimes, these children are told by their employers to lie about their age in order to circumvent any probing questions. NBC chronicles the exploitation of Ralph, a 15-year-old laborer who works on a Central Valley migrant labor camp with dozens of other children as young as or even younger than he. When asked what farm labor is like, Ralph states, “We get tired and like we get kind of tired and our arms hurt… It is too hard to be in the fields.” Indeed, these children are forced to work the fields even when temperatures skyrocket to 106 degrees.

Furthermore, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) stated that up to 670 children had been killed while working during 1980 to 1989. Seventy percent of these deaths were initiated by violations of child safety laws. Additionally, a follow-up study by the NIOSH in 1992 reported that over 64,100 children were admitted to the emergency room due to injuries on the job.

As startling as these estimates may be, they under-report child labor-related death and injuries by 25 percent to 30 percent. It is difficult to pinpoint the precise rate of child labor in America since many exploitative employers do not report their mistreatment of children and many child laborers often fail to speak out due to fear.

Child labor remains an issue in America, a country that supposedly phased out the exploitation of children in the late 1930’s, largely as a result of a lack of effective legislation. According to Project Censored, the individuals who benefit the most from lack of legislation and awareness are the exploitative industries while young laborers remain perpetual victims.

Phoebe Pradhan

Sources: The Nation, NBC, Project Censored
Photo: Bored Panda