A 15-year-old girl works on a tobacco farm in North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch
Americans think of child labor-if they think of it at all-as something that goes on in other, less enlightened countries, a phenomenon that was vanquished in the US around the turn of the 20th century thanks to muckracking journalists like Jacob Riis. But it is apparently still alive and well in the modern American South, says a new report released this week by Human Rights Watch (HRW). According to that report, teenage (and mostly Hispanic immigrant) workers have suffered from all kinds of hardships doing unregulated work in what remains a multibillion-dollar industry, including acute nicotine poisoning from prolonged exposure to mature tobacco plants.
Interviews with 141 children aged seven to 17 revealed harrowing tale after harrowing tale.
"I would barely eat anything because I wouldn't get hungry," Elena G., a 13-year-old worker in North Carolina, told researchers. "Sometimes I felt like I needed to throw up... I felt like I was going to faint. I would stop and just hold myself up with the tobacco plant."
Elsewhere in the report, 16-year-old Andrew N. described an accident he had while harvesting tobacco in Tennessee two years earlier. "My first day, I cut myself [on the leg] with the hatchet... I probably hit a vein or something because it wouldn't stop bleeding and I had to go to the hospital. They stitched it... My foot was all covered in blood."
None of this has been a particular concern for the Obama administration or legislators, and it's been left to NGOs and other activist organizations to shame Big Tobacco into tweaking its policies voluntarily.
"The US has failed America's families by not meaningfully protecting child farmworkers from dangers to their health and safety, including on tobacco farms," said Margaret Wurth, the author of the HRW report. "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." HRW presented its findings to the tobacco companies, some of which claimed to already be looking into their practices-Philip Morris got singled out for being ahead of the curve on tackling the problem-but the need for more concrete action could not be any more clear.
A 16-year-old worker harvests tobacco on a farm in Kentucky. Photo by Marcus Bleasdale, courtesy of Human Rights Watch
Making things difficult is that organized labor has historically been weak in North Carolina, the country's biggest tobacco-producing state-just 3 percent of its workers belonged to a union last year, and local right-to-work laws designed to scare off organizers have been very effective. But unions have nonetheless been active in the region for some time now, trying to highlight the plight of the young farmworkers and engage them politically. Tantalizingly, the Department of Labor floated new agricultural worker rules for children in 2012 that would have made a real difference, but withdrew them after a public outcry that alleged the changes would have hurt family farms-and perhaps fear that they would hurt the president's re-election effort in competitive southern states like Virginia and North Carolina.
"The Obama administration is firmly committed to promoting family farmers and respecting the rural way of life, especially the role that parents and other family members play in passing those traditions down through the generations," read the sheepish Department of Labor statement issued at the time.
Just as the creation of Social Security in the aftermath of the Great Depression initially left out agricultural workers (who tended to be brown, spurring southern Democratic lawmakers to make sure they were excluded from welfare programs), American labor law has failed to keep up with the most dangerous field work undertaken by our new marginalized underclass. Whereas European immigrants arriving in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were quickly integrated into well-oiled urban political machines, the recent wave of Hispanic workers has tended to be too dispersed, at least in most southern states, to enjoy much clout.
"The child labor issue is a remnant of this racist legacy of not extending labor rights to agricultural workers since the 1930s," said Baldemar Velasquez, a former farmworker and co-founder and president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), an arm of the AFL-CIO. FLOC has launched a month of action around the issue, with protests in England (where British American Tobacco, one of the world's largest companies and assumed to be relatively insulated from domestic outrage, is headquartered) as well as the United States. Activists hope to make this the largest farm worker protest drive since the days of Cesar Chavez, which could theoretically spur the Obama administration into action.
The HRW report has gotten enough publicity that the Department of Labor had to issue a response-which they did, in the form of an incredibly tepid statement they are emailing reporters who ask about it.
"The report released by Human Rights Watch calls attention to a very serious issue-certain work activities and environments that threaten the health, safety, and welfare of children," the statement read. "We appreciate that we had an opportunity to hear from the report's authors about their findings and how we can continue to work together to ensure that young workers in agriculture are only employed and working within the rules."
But the seemingly magical power of the tobacco industry-and a parochial culture that has historically encouraged the children of tobacco farmers to keep up the family trade-continues to stand in their way.
"It used to be almost a requirement in North Carolina politics that you primed tobacco on your daddy's farm when you were growing up," said former Democratic Congressman Brad Miller.
Of course, it's pretty scant relief to children working across the tobacco belt to think that they too might be able to run for office some day in a place like North Carolina.
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