AFOP to Congress: Prohibit Child Labor on U.S. Tobacco Farms

April 16, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and U.S. Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) introduced legislation to protect child workers from the dangers of exposure to tobacco plants, which can include acute nicotine poisoning and other long term health effects. The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP) supports the proposed legislation, and calls on Congress to swiftly pass the bills.

AFOP’s media release can be read below.

Cicilline and Durbin

The one thing that shouldn’t go missing in the story of food

The one thing that shouldn’t go missing in the story of food
By: Kathleen Nelson, Director of Workforce Development

I’m currently blessed with a very inquisitive four-and-a-half-year-old spitfire full of questions about the world.  This year in his preschool class, the children spent the autumn learning about food and nutrition. They learned about healthy eating, and what kinds of foods are ‘anytime foods’ like fruits and vegetables and what kinds of foods should be eaten ‘only once in a while’ like cookies and cakes.  (That lesson may have only slightly taken—“Once in a while means once every day after dinner, right?” he sweetly asks.)  They visited supermarkets, gardens, and a farm, and they talked about how fruits and veggies are grown, where their cheeseburgers come from, and what goes into their bread – and what happens when that food goes into their bodies.  They’re developing critical thinking skills, (“Mommy, do you need glasses because you never ate enough carrots?”) and asking great questions.

Crucially, my son learned that farmers grow and pick our food.  Then, trains and trucks bring the food to markets and grocers where we can buy it.  While this simplified narrative about our food was mostly perfect for his preschool class, we must make sure that our farmworkers aren’t missing from the story we tell ourselves and our children.  The vital role farmworkers play in our nation’s harvests, nourishing our bodies and the economy, should be honored and celebrated.  It’s also critical that we don’t allow these workers to be left in the dark.  Without visibility, this community of people is vulnerable to exploitation that would never be allowed to stand in any other industry — there are children working in the field, there’s exposure to dangerous pesticides and chemicals, and the workers all too often earn unfair wages.

National Farmworker Awareness week is a great time to start a conversation with your family over the dinner table or on the way to school.  I’m happy to report that my own little guy doesn’t leave this vital community out of the story anymore — what about your family?

Tobacco Work is Poisoning our Children

Tobacco Work is Poisoning our Children
How much longer will the Obama Administration allow it?

“I didn’t feel well, but I still kept working. I started throwing up. I was throwing up for like 10 minutes, just what I ate. I took a break for a few hours and then I went back to work.”
16-year-old child tobacco worker
Interviewed for Human Rights Watch report, “Tobacco’s Hidden Children”

The U.S. is the 4th leading tobacco producer in the world, behind China, Brazil, and India. The U.S. is also behind Brazil and India in protecting young children from dangerous work. Tobacco work is prohibited for children under the age of 18 in both of these countries, while the U.S. allows children as the young as 12 to work with few restrictions to the number of hours and the types of tasks they are allowed to perform, including tobacco work.

Human Rights Watch published a report  in May 2014 in which 141 child tobacco workers from North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia were interviewed about their working conditions. The results? The children were exposed to high levels of pesticides and nicotine, worked for long hours and low wages. They described nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, dizziness, lightheadedness, headaches, and sleeplessness while working on tobacco farms – all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning.

In December 2014, the New York Times Editorial Board reported on how the world’s top tobacco companies updated their child labor policies, including raising the minimum age limit to 16 years of age. While tobacco growers and the leading tobacco companies have all adopted voluntary self-regulations, these changes are not backed by U.S. law and continues to leave young children across the country unprotected.

On Thursday, Children in the Fields Campaign Director Norma Flores López will be participating in a high-level meeting at the U.S. Department of Labor with the Child Labor Coalition and representatives of the tobacco industry to talk about the steps that have been taken by the tobacco companies to address child labor in U.S. tobacco, and jointly encourage the Obama Administration do more to protect child tobacco workers. Also in attendance will be Cecilia Muñoz, Director of the Domestic Policy Council for the White House, and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez.

Children do not belong in tobacco farms, where they are placing their health and future in danger. They are especially vulnerable because their bodies and brains are still developing. Their testimonies reveal a harsh reality, in which they push themselves to their limits and are willing to sacrifice anything for their families. Without the protections and support from the government, they are destined to a lifetime of living in poverty with mounting health issues developed from years of farm work. In this year’s National Farmworker Awareness Week, we are asking for people across the country to add their voice in support of our farmworker children.

To show support for regulatory action on child labor in tobacco, Avaaz launched an online petition to urge the Obama Administration and Secretary of Labor Perez to adopt regulations banning child labor in U.S. tobacco farming. More than 30,000 signatures have been collected to date. The signatures will be delivered prior to the meeting with the U.S. Department of Labor and the White House. The link to the campaign page is here.

There is also growing momentum in Congress calling for stronger protections for child tobacco workers. In the coming days, Senator Dick Durbin (IL) and Congressman David Cicilline (RI) will be introducing companion bills to prohibit children from work involving direct contact with tobacco, citing concerns about health risks. Congressman Cicilline, who introduced the bill last session, had also sent a letter  with Congressman Matt Cartwright (PA) to urge the Department of Labor to implement stronger protections for child tobacco workers.

“Children working in tobacco are among the nation’s most vulnerable and we must do more to protect them,” they wrote.

In addition, the Children in the Fields Campaign has launched AFOP’s 2015 Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Children Essay & Art Contests. This contest allows us to collect stories from our farmworker children, including those working in tobacco farms, and showcase not only their powerful testimonies, but also the incredible talent in our farmworker community. The American Federation of Teachers will once again sponsor the contest. This year’s theme is “Planting Hope for Our Future Blooms.” More information can be found by visiting our AFOP website.

When we listen to the stories of our farmworker youth, it is clear: Tobacco work is poisoning our children. Together, we need to demand that the Obama Administration act now to protect our children from the dangers of tobacco work. We mustn’t allow for any more child to get poisoned – not one more.