Rachel L. Wright: Harvest of shame

June 25, 2014 

Harvest of shame

I am writing in response to the recent report released by Human Rights Watch entitled “Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in U.S. tobacco farming.” The findings in the report detail the lax child labor laws we have in this country as well as the appalling effects that children working in the tobacco harvest suffer.

Current U.S. law allows children as young as 12 years old to work an unlimited number of hours outside of school hours with parental permission, and there is no minimum age for children to work on small farms. At age 16, farmworker children can do jobs deemed hazardous by the U.S. Department of Labor even though in every other sector, children must be at least 18. This is appalling, especially since our law prohibits the sale of tobacco to a minor but allows minors to work in fields where wet tobacco leaves can contain the same amount of nicotine as six cigarettes. Even countries such as Russia and Kazakhstan recognize that working in tobacco is hazardous for children. They don’t allow children under the age of 18 to work in their tobacco fields.

As a resident of North Carolina who has worked with farmworker youth for five years and who comes from a family of tobacco farmers, I have seen the negative effects of allowing young children to work in tobacco, and the lack of opportunity for youth in rural communities. The families of these child farmworkers rely on the extra income that their child earns alongside them in the tobacco fields. Perhaps if adult farmworkers were paid more per hour to harvest tobacco, then it wouldn’t be necessary for their children to work as well. Or, if these children lived in communities where there were alternative opportunities or forms of income, they could still work and earn money for their families but be able to do it in a non-hazardous environment.

This is 2014. It is time to offer farmworker children the same protections that are offered to children in every other industry. Both U.S. legislators and tobacco companies must step up and show that the health and safety of children in this country is more valuable than their earning potential. I encourage everyone to read the Human Rights Watch report, and sign the petition urging tobacco companies to ban child labor. Links to both the petition and the report can be found at ncfield.org.

Rachel L Wright

Raleigh

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