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Back to school – or back to the fields?

It’s August.  Children across America (and their parents) are preparing for the start of the new school year: Fresh notebooks, a new outfit, free air conditioning.

But for thousands of children who toil as farm laborers in Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, August means something else entirely — long hours of dangerous, exploitative work harvesting tobacco for a product that is also dangerous and exploitative.

{mosads}The grueling nature of tobacco cultivation is well known. After a tour of North Carolina tobacco fields last year, Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) and members of the British Parliament were appalled at what they saw: In their reports, Kaptur and her British colleagues described not only long days and low wages, but also squalid conditions, lack of sanitation, hot water, flushing toilets and basic health services, as well as stories of sexual abuse of female farm workers.

The situation looks even more disturbing when one considers that kids, some as young as seven years old, often do the cultivating, as a 2014 survey by Human Rights Watch documented. The leading international human rights watchdog found that child laborers in tobacco routinely work 50 to 60 hour weeks in blistering heat using dangerous tools and machinery, and hauling heavy loads. Aside from facing risk of injury, the report also found kids on tobacco farms are regularly sickened by tobacco itself. Children are especially susceptible to “Green Tobacco Sickness” — acute nicotine poisoning — as well as to pesticide exposures.  

The nausea, dizziness, headaches, skin rashes and shortness of breath characteristic of nicotine poisoning also makes kids more prone to heat illnesses. The Human Rights Watch survey showed that many employers did not provide them with water, and limited their access to toilets, hand-washing facilities and shade.

As brutal as these conditions sound, they are entirely legal. But by ordering revised federal labor regulations, President Obama could end this dangerous situation. 

As our own research shows, policymakers have a weak history of protecting children both from exploitative farm labor and tobacco’s ill effects. Over the past 100 years, labor laws have evolved to prohibit children from working in dangerous jobs such as mining, meat processing and heavy manufacturing.

But agricultural exemptions to labor laws mean children working on farms are subject to an array of hazards not permitted in other businesses. 

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, regulations on child labor have foundered on complaints they would endanger family farms. After all, shouldn’t a son be able to help his father at harvest time?  

Today’s farms are hardly the family enterprises of our national imagination, though. Instead, agriculture is now a highly consolidated industry: According to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, around 80,000 farms account for more than 60 percent of the nation’s agricultural output.

Although tobacco farms are, on average, smaller than other commodity operations, kids working tobacco farms are rarely sons and daughters of the farm’s owner. Rather, the Human Rights Watch survey found, the overwhelming majority of child tobacco workers are sons and daughters of Hispanic immigrants. 

These facts make American tobacco production look decidedly more Dickensian than Jeffersonian.

In response to the Human Rights Watch report, the tobacco industry said it would stop purchasing tobacco from growers that employed children under age 16.  This is a significant acknowledgment by cigarette manufacturers that child labor poses a moral — or at least public relations — problem in the United States.

The Department of Labor has an opportunity to enlist the tobacco manufacturers’ support for a child labor ban, enabling companies to make good on promises of corporate social responsibility.

But seeking industry support for a child labor ban is not enough. After all, history has taught us that no industry in America is less equipped to police itself through voluntary codes — especially codes that monitor kids. In 2006 a federal appeals court judge found Big Tobacco violated federal racketeering laws by engaging in a “massive-50 year scheme to defraud the public.” The tobacco industry’s marketing to youth — “the base of our business,” according to one internal memo — was especially condemned by the judge.

Entrusting Big Tobacco to monitor child labor is akin to putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, leaving children to cultivate a poisonous, deadly commodity.

By directing the federal Department of Labor to revise its regulations for tobacco work, President Obama could take children out of tobacco fields this harvest season.

Milov teaches history at the University of Virginia and is writing a book about the history of tobacco regulation. Rosenberg teaches at Duke University and is the author of a forthcoming history of the USDA’s iconic agricultural youth clubs, “The 4-H Harvest” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).


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