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U.S. Child Tobacco Field Labor


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