We Only Thought it was 2014, It’s Always 1870 Somewhere

Child labor laws don’t cover some agricultural work. We know that fact intellectually, and we dismiss it by thinking of benign family farms. But this incredibly disturbing report by Human Rights Watch awakens our conscience to the reality:  kids as young as seven are working long and dangerous hours on tobacco farms, right here in the U.S. of A as if it were 1870. And it’s disgusting!

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… 

Several 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, some research suggests that nicotine exposure during adolescence may have consequences for brain development.

What that fucking hell!  Please read the article, if not the actual study. It’s a real eye opener.

One is inclined to ask “where are the parents?” but we know where the parents are. Probably right next to the kids in the fields, struggling to make ends meet and facing horrible economic choices like needing their children to spend their “summer vacation” laboring under conditions we thought did not exist in this country in this century.


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