Despite threat of nicotine poisoning, federal law allows 12-year-olds to work in tobacco fields
A group that fights child labor has called on the U.S. Department of Labor to prohibit children from working in tobacco fields.
“We don’t let 12-year-olds buy and smoke cigarettes,” said Sally Greenberg, co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition, in a statement released Friday. “Why would we let them perform dangerous work in tobacco fields beginning at the age of 12? It simply isn’t right.”
Earlier this month, The Nation reported that children as young as 12 were toiling in tobacco fields, where they often suffered a form of acute nicotine poisoning from handling wet tobacco.
Children and teens are particularly vulnerable to green tobacco sickness due to their smaller body size. The illness often causes weakness, headache, dizziness and vomiting, and can require emergency medical treatment.
The Labor Department had proposed updating the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 in 2011 to strengthen child labor laws and ban children from working with tobacco.
The Act set a minimum work age of 16 for most occupations, but exempted minors who work in the agriculture industry.
The new regulations would have prohibited “the employment of young hired farm workers in tobacco production and curing in order to prevent occupational illness due to green tobacco sickness.” They also would have prohibited those under the age of 16 from operating heavy machinery, working with pesticides, and working in dangerous locations.
The Labor Department said it proposed the new regulations because of studies showing that children were significantly more likely to be killed while performing agricultural work than while working in all other industries combined.
But the proposed changes were shelved in 2012 due to pressure from the American Farm Bureau and members of Congress.
“In withdrawing these badly needed safety rules, the Obama Administration yielded to industry lobbyists, but this new information about exposure to tobacco raises new warning flags,” Greenberg said. “The Nation’s reporting makes it clear that the US government has a responsibility to protect 12-year-olds toiling in the fields. It must pick up the process it started and protect child workers from the known dangers of tobacco harvesting.”
[Woman working in tobacco field on Shutterstock]