Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Government, Companies Should Provide Protection
Children working on tobacco farms in the United States are exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, and other dangers, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
Big tobacco profits from child labor in US tobacco fields. Take action now:  http://www.hrw.org/ChildFreeTobacco %23ChildFreeTobacco
While US law prohibits the sale of tobacco products to children, children can legally work on tobacco farms in the US. The world’s largest tobacco companies buy tobacco grown on US farms, but none have child labor policies that sufficiently protect children from hazardous work.
The 138-page report, “Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in US Tobacco Farming,” documents conditions for children working on tobacco farms in four states where 90 percent of US tobacco is grown: North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. Children reported vomiting, nausea, headaches, and dizziness while working on tobacco farms, all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning. Many also said they worked long hours without overtime pay, often in extreme heat without shade or sufficient breaks, and wore no, or inadequate, protective gear.
“As the school year ends, children are heading into the tobacco fields, where they can’t avoid being exposed to dangerous nicotine, without smoking a single cigarette” said Margaret Wurth, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “It’s no surprise the children exposed to poisons in the tobacco fields are getting sick.”
The report is based on interviews with 141 child tobacco workers, ages seven to 17.
Children working in tobacco farming face other serious risks as well, Human Rights Watch said. They may use dangerous tools and machinery, lift heavy loads, and climb several stories without protection to hang tobacco in barns. Children also reported that tractors sprayed pesticides in nearby fields. They said the spray drifted over them, making them vomit, feel dizzy, and have difficulty breathing and a burning sensation in their eyes.
Many of the pesticides used in tobacco production are known neurotoxins, poisons that alter the nervous system. The long-term effects of childhood pesticide exposure can include cancer, problems with learning and cognition, and reproductive health issues.Children are especially vulnerable because their bodies and brains are still developing.Human Rights Watch sent letters to 10 US and global tobacco companies and met with many of them to encourage these companies to adopt policies, or strengthen existing policies, to prevent hazardous child labor in their supply chains.
“Tobacco companies shouldn’t benefit from hazardous child labor,” Wurth said. “They have a responsibility to adopt clear, comprehensive policies that get children out of dangerous work on tobacco farms, and make sure the farms follow the rules.”

Health Hazards for ChildrenSeveral hundred thousand children work in US agriculture every year, but no data is available on the number working in tobacco farming. Many children interviewed by Human Rights Watch described going to work on tobacco farms at age 11 or 12, primarily during the summer, to help support their families. Most were the children of Hispanic immigrants who lived in communities where tobacco was grown and who attended school full-time.
Children Human Rights Watch interviewed described feeling suddenly, acutely ill while working on tobacco farms. “It happens when you’re out in the sun,” said a16-year-old girl in Kentucky. “You want to throw up. And you drink water because you’re so thirsty, but the water makes you feel worse. You throw up right there when you’re cutting [tobacco plants], but you just keep cutting.” A 12-year-old boy in North Carolina described a headache he had while working:“It was horrible. It felt like there was something in my head trying to eat it.”
Acute nicotine poisoning – often called Green Tobacco Sickness – occurs when workers absorb nicotine through their skin while handling tobacco plants, particularly when plants are wet. Common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness. Though the long-term effects are uncertain, someresearch suggests that nicotine exposure during adolescence may have consequences for brain development.
Several children told Human Rights Watch that they had been injured while working with sharp tools and heavy machinery. In Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, children often hand-harvest tall tobacco plants by cutting them with small axes and spearing the stalks onto long sticks with pointed ends. The children said they often cut or puncture themselves on the hands, arms, legs, and feet. A 16-year-old boy described an accident while harvesting tobacco in Tennessee: “I cut myself with the hatchet.… I probably hit a vein or something because it wouldn’t stop bleeding and I had to go to the hospital…. My foot was all covered in blood.” One 17-year-old boy interviewed by Human Rights Watch lost two fingers in an accident with a mower used to trim small tobacco plants.Almost none of the children Human Rights Watch interviewed said that employers had given them health and safety training or protective gear. Instead, children typically covered themselves with black plastic garbage bags in an attempt to keep their clothes dry when they worked in fields wet with dew or rain.
Federal data on fatal occupational injuries indicates that agriculture is the most dangerous industry open to young workers. In 2012, two-thirds of children under 18 who died from occupational injuries were agricultural workers, and there were more than 1,800 nonfatal injuries to children under 18 working on US farms.Most children interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had no access to toilets or a place to wash their hands at their worksites, leaving them with tobacco and pesticides residue on their hands, even during mealtimes.

Lack of Protection Under US LawUnder US labor law, children working in agriculture can work longer hours, at younger ages, and in more hazardous conditions than children in any other industry. Children as young as 12 can be hired for unlimited hours outside of school hours on a farm of any size with parental permission, and there is no minimum age for children to work on small farms. At 16, child farmworkers can do jobs deemed hazardous by the US Department of Labor. Children in all other sectors must be 18 to do hazardous work.Regulations proposed by the Labor Department in 2011 would have prohibited children under 16 from working on tobacco farms, but they were withdrawn in 2012.
“The US has failed America’s families by not meaningfully protecting child farmworkers from dangers to their health and safety, including on tobacco farms,”Wurth said. “The Obama administration should endorse regulations that make it clear that work on tobacco farms is hazardous for children, and Congress should enact laws to give child farmworkers the same protections as all other working children.”

Role of Tobacco CompaniesHuman Rights Watch presented its findings and recommendations to 10 companies that purchase tobacco grown in the United States, including eight cigarette manufacturing companies: Altria Group (parent of Philip Morris USA), British American Tobacco, China National Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco Group, Japan Tobacco Group, Lorillard, Philip Morris International, Reynolds American, and two international leaf merchants who purchase tobacco leaf and sell to manufacturers: Alliance One and Universal Corporation.
All of the companies except China National Tobacco responded and said they are concerned about child labor in their supply chains. However, the companies’ approaches do not sufficiently protect children from hazardous work, Human Rights Watch said. In some cases, companies allow for lower standards of protection for children in their US supply chain than for children working on tobacco farms in all other countries from which they purchase tobacco.
Philip Morris International has the most comprehensive global child labor policy among the companies contacted. Since 2010, Philip Morris International has sought to carry out the policy through training and monitoring in its supply chain worldwide. In 2009, Human Rights Watch documented abuses on farms supplying tobacco to a Philip Morris International subsidiary in Kazakhstan.
Human Rights Watch urged companies to prohibit children from engaging in all tasks that pose risks to their health and safety, including any work involving direct contact with tobacco plants or dry tobacco, due to the risk of nicotine exposure. Companies should also establish effective internal and third-party monitoring of labor policies.“Farming is hard work anyway, but children working on tobacco farms get so sick that they throw up, get covered by pesticides, and have no real protective gear,”Wurth said. “Tobacco companies should get children out of hazardous work on tobacco farms and support efforts to provide them with alternative educational and vocational opportunities.”
Big tobacco profits from child labor in US tobacco fields. Take action now:  http://www.hrw.org/ChildFreeTobacco %23ChildFreeTobacco

May 14, 2014

Tobacco Growers Respond to Human Rights Watch Report

Today the Human Rights Watch released a report entitled “Tobacco’s Hidden Children”. The report makes note that greater than 90% of US tobacco production occurs in four primary states which includes North Carolina. It makes allegations that the presence of children working on farms is wide spread and a prolific problem. While the United States labor laws permit children to be engaged in certain agricultural work endeavors, the report is careful to point out that its findings are not an illegal problem in America. 

The HRW report suggests that child labor is an acceptable practice, and that it goes largely “unchecked”. The Tobacco Growers Association of NC (TGANC) takes issue with such distortions of facts. In the United States, enforcement of child labor laws is the jurisdiction of both the US Department of Labor as well as the State Departments of Labor. It is also known that any worker may anonymously report concerns or violations to these resource agencies. 

Further, the departments of labor are required to make random and unannounced inspection visits to farms in order to assure compliance of all related laws and regulations. Data reports that the US Department of Labor only recorded one incident of child labor violations in NC in the crop season for 2012. 

It is widely understood that agriculture can be a labor intensive vocation and is known to embody long hours of work needs during peak periods given its often perishable condition of certain crops being harvested. Federal agencies rank agriculture as the second most hazardous occupation in America behind mining. These are not new facts to emphasize in the HRW report. 

These conditions are also well understood by any person who chooses to become engaged in farming either as an owner/operator or employee of a farm. It is incumbent upon farmers who employ workers to understand labor laws and to work diligently to obey these requirements. It is the opinion of the Tobacco Growers Association of NC that the great majority of the farmers in the state place tremendous value and appreciation on the workforce that is willing to help them harvest crops. Most farmers go beyond what is required of them in terms of labor compliance. 

Protecting and providing support for workers is an important aspect in maintaining a stable and quality workforce. Farmers understand that mistreatment of workers or violations of labor laws is the quickest way to create a situation of insufficient workers to harvest a crop in a timely and quality fashion. Every farmer in NC will tell you that their employees are among the greatest asset in the success of the family farming operation. There is absolutely zero benefit in mistreating farm workers.

TGANC condemns any mistreatment or misuse of workers. The fact that HRW points to 141 incidents of children working in a farm environment should be considered as isolated and rare occurrences in the United States and most certainly in North Carolina. The findings in this report should be viewed in this country as the exception rather than the norm. Additionally, it is unfortunate that the report chose to only focus on the crop of tobacco when there are dozens of other commodities that depend on hand harvest labor. It brings to question either a hidden agenda or some other adverse motivation that is anti-tobacco.

Our state produces approximately 400 million pounds of flue-cure tobacco in a season on 180,000 acres of land. It is estimated that the approximate number of farms in the state is 1,600 to 2,000. On average these farms may employ an average of 15-20 workers at peak periods. 

This calculation would equate to roughly 30,000 employees. Most of these workers will be seasonal and a high percentage will be classified as “guest workers”. If all 141 incidents in the HRW report had occurred in NC alone, that would be a ratio of .004 percent of the workers. 

Could the statement be made that 99.006 % are doing it correctly? And, again the USDOL only reported one incident of child labor in 2012 in NC.

Great strides have been achieved in the US tobacco industry over the past four decades to drastically reduce the amount of labor required to grow and harvest a crop of tobacco. In a 1965 NC State University report by the agricultural economics department it recorded that the crop required 600 man hours per acre grown and delivered and average yield of 1,600 pounds. In 2013 that statistic is 50-75 man hours per acre and the yield average is above 2,300 pounds. 

Fifty percent of the tobacco in NC is in fact, machine harvested. All modern operations use bulk curing barns and 100% of farm tobacco is packaged by automatic bailing machines in preparation for sale. Many farms use mechanized “topping” devices and precision sucker control products that have helped to reduce that labor demand by 50% as well. All of this mechanization is important in reducing the workers exposure to raw leaf tobacco.

Further, the advent of larger curing box systems and the attention to reduce leaf damage from excessive moisture in the curing process has resulted in many operators not starting field harvest when tobacco leaves are wet. This practice has also helped reduce any potential risks to “green tobacco sickness” that can result from handling wet leaves.

We see two important points coming from the HRW report. First, it is additional evidence that guest worker polices in this country need to be further addressed and improved in the ongoing immigration debate. Second, as an industry we will continue to prioritize the need to completely remove hand labor as a requirement in this crop so that its cultural practice can be similar to that of basic row crops such as corn, soybean and cotton. It remains the goal of TGANC to lead the technology discoveries that may someday result in tobacco that is not touched by human hands.

For additional Information: Graham Boyd, Executive Vice President, Phone: 919-614-0099. Email:grahamboyd@nc.rr.com.


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