By Jessica Glenza
Luis is just 14 years old, but he already has an exhausting, dawn-till-dusk job. Last summer, he started working in tobacco fields in North Carolina.
Even though Luis is just a child – too young to buy cigarettes – it is legal for him to work here in the US.
The job pays about $7.25 per hour.
Monday through Saturday last summer, when he was not in school, he rose at 5am, dressed in long sleeves, jeans, boots, gloves, a hat and a plastic poncho, and waited for a van to drive him to fields as far as an hour away. He came home around 7pm. This is a typical schedule for laborers in this tough and dangerous job.
Workers in tobacco are vulnerable to heat sickness, in temperatures which regularly reach 32C (89F); they risk injuries from sharp objects; and, if the Trump administration has its way, children will return to using the most toxic agrochemicals.
Then there is the plant itself. Tobacco naturally contains water-soluble nicotine. This makes morning dew or overnight rain a vehicle for huge doses of nicotine. Workers are regularly exposed to six cigarettes’ worth of nicotine per day, one study found. This can result in acute nicotine poisoning, called green tobacco sickness, characterized by nausea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness.
“I wanted to help my mama,” said Luis. He wanted to work, he said, “to get school supplies, so she doesn’t have to waste money”. Luis is the son of a cervical cancer survivor. He started to work when his mother, a waitress, was too ill to hold a job. (The Guardian has changed the names of workers and their families in this report.)
“It’s heavy work, very hard,” said Luis’s mother. But, she said, “there’s no choice”. Children need to help buy “clothes, shoes, their own things, things they need”. She said it would be “better when they were older, but he started because I had cancer ... He was helping me as well as my older son.”
In the US, lax laws and an informal economy in which landowners are removed from hiring laborers allow teens to work growing and harvesting tobacco. This contravenes some tobacco companies’ own policies, which often prohibit children from performing hazardous work.
“There’s a lot of 14-, 15-year-olds working in the fields,” said Antonio, a 19-year-old who has done so since he was 15, a history confirmed by his mother. “They need money or they want to work,” Antonio said.
Altria, parent company of Philip Morris USA, which produces Marlboro cigarettes, said growers were “prohibited from hiring those less than 16 years of age, and may only assign hazardous duties to workers 18 and older. Both are above the legal requirements. We require parental consent for those under 18 working in tobacco farming.”
The company also said it reviewed all growers every three years. In 2017, it found only one case of child labor, in which a farmer hired two 15-year-olds.
“While the individuals were no longer employed by the grower, the contract requirements were reviewed with the grower to strengthen their understanding of the minimum age requirement,” the company said. The company also said it had hired third-party assessors to monitor labor conditions.
Miguel Coleta, director of sustainability for Philip Morris International, said the company had been “making progress in tackling complex labor issues on farms supplying to PMI and our standards exceed US in many areas”.
“Challenges remain, and PMI continues to work with Verité and the Farm Labor Practices Group on systemic issues associated with child labor, grievance mechanisms to protect workers’ rights and to achieve meaningful improvements on the ground,” said Coleta.
In 2015, PMI adopted a new leaf-buying model in the US, and it now buys through the third-party leaf buyers Alliance One International Inc and Universal Leaf North America. At the time, Human Rights Watch said the move would improve labor conditions on US farms.
The Guardian interviewed several teens, parents, and labor organizers for this story. They described a picture in which child labor was commonplace. However, many said they depended on their children’s income to make ends meet. Many of those interviewed also work in other crops, including picking cucumbers, peppers or other vegetables.
“It’s the fact that we have to do it, because there is no alternative,” said Laticia Savala, a labor organizer with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (Floc) in North Carolina. Floc does not support outlawing child labor in fields, because organizers feel it would harm families who depend on children’s income. However, needing the money does not lessen the harm.
“What mom wouldn’t want their kids studying [rather] than working in the fields?” asked Savala. “You’re forced into doing something.” If labor conditions on farms “were better, probably child labor wouldn’t exist”.
The world’s largest tobacco-producing countries span the globe. They include Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Malawi, Pakistan and the United States.
Together, North Carolina and Kentucky produce 70% of the 700m pounds of tobacco grown in the US each year. Only 0.04% of US farmland grows tobacco, but the United States is still an international juggernaut, the fourth-largest producer in the world.
North Carolina is just one part of a global supply chain that feeds cigarette makers with tobacco leaf. However, the value of tobacco farming is dwarfed by the value of the global tobacco products. Tobacco farming was worth $19.1bn in 2013. Once leaf is manufactured, marketed and branded, tobacco products were worth $783bn the same year.
North Carolina’s farmers employ mostly Latin American workers, who toil in fields owned by white, ageing farmers. The US does not grant agricultural workers collective bargaining rights and workers are sometimes undocumented. Workers are vulnerable to wage theft, exploitation and dangerous working conditions.
Because children work in an informal economy, there is no data on how many might work in fields in summer months, or even when they should be in school. A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) was the first in recent memory to ignite debate about child labor in tobacco in the US. The advocacy group followed up the report in 2015, and found little had fundamentally changed in fields.
“If you appear younger than 16, they’ll ask,” said 19-year-old John about children working on the fields. “But otherwise, no,” they don’t ask. Many contractors, one mother said, encouraged children to lie about their age.
Attempts have been made to regulate tobacco growing in the past. In 2012, the Obama administration attempted to make it illegal for children younger than 16 to work in tobacco. But the Department of Labor backed down after Republicans falsely argued the measure would prevent children from working on family farms.
At the state level, as recently as 2017, the Democratic Virginia delegate Alfonso Lopez tried to introduce a bill to bar child labor on tobacco farms. He was blocked by Republicans.
“If this was your kid, would you be OK with having them work in this job?” Lopez asked at the time as the bill was shelved. “Would you? I don’t think you would. So why is it OK for kids you don’t know to do this job?”
When criticism of child labor on US farms reached its peak in 2014, Philip Morris International hired a company to audit its supply chain. It found children working in hazardous conditions on 16% of the US farms it visited.
However, auditors concluded: “The root cause of many labor related issues in the US is the lack of sustainable, reliable workforce exacerbated by poor US immigration policies.”
The US has signed an international human rights convention meant to protect children “from economic exploitation” and work likely “to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development”. To that end, it encourages trading partners to meet these standards, and publishes an annual report on the “worst forms of child labor” around the world.
One country singled out in the report was Malawi, visited by the Guardian earlier this year as part of an investigation, where children “continue to engage in the worst forms of child labor, including in the harvesting of tobacco”, the most recent report by the US Bureau of International Labor Affairs said.
The tobacco industry, through its Eliminating Child Labor in Tobacco Growing Foundation, agrees “in principle” children should be prohibited from hazardous work, “particularly the use of of machinery and agrochemicals by children in tobacco farming”.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, is hoping to further deregulate farm labor. Rules put into place after the 2014 HRW report are being rolled back by the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is examining whether children should again be allowed to work with dangerous pesticides on farms.
“I’ve worked in the field as well; it’s very difficult. For a young person it’s worse,” said Antonio’s mother, a 37-year-old with three sons who works behind the counter of a rural convenience store. Teens often prefer farm work to other work, she said, “because they’re given jobs despite their age”.
Dominance of American tobacco has waned in recent decades, as the tobacco supply chain has globalized. This and the deregulation of US tobacco price controls has encouraged consolidation. Where in 1978 there were 188,000 tobacco farms, today there are around 4,200.
“A lot of times they’re underage and they lie and say they’re 16 or 17, but they’re actually 13 or 14 years [old],” Antonio’s mother said. “It’s hard, but there aren’t any more options.” She said claims that child labor was not happening on tobacco farms were “a lie”.
Published on The Guardian on June 28, 2018
By Margaret Wurth
In the next week, Indonesian President Joko (“Jokowi”) Widodo will decide whether to encourage parliament to move forward with a draft tobacco bill aimed at increasing domestic tobacco production. The bill would gut many important existing health regulations, like the requirement that companies include a health warning with a picture on the label of tobacco products.
Those are troubling proposals given that millions of children in Indonesia start smoking each year, and that 40 million more are “passive smokers” from secondhand smoke. The Indonesian Ministry of Health, 17 prominent health organizations, and many others have denounced the measure as an attempt to undermine Indonesia’s already weak tobacco control laws. Jokowi should reject the bill.
But the draft bill is not the only tobacco policy issue awaiting action by the Jokowi administration. Each year in Indonesia, thousands of children, some just 8 years old, work in hazardous conditions producing tobacco that ends up in products marketed and sold by huge Indonesian and multinational tobacco companies.
My colleagues and I published a Human Rights Watch report documenting hazardous child labor on Indonesian tobacco farms last May. Since then, another tobacco season has come and gone, but the child workers behind Indonesia’s tobacco industry remain unprotected.
We interviewed 132 children who worked on tobacco farms in four of Indonesia’s biggest tobacco-producing provinces. We found that child workers are exposed to nicotine and pesticides—toxins that can be especially harmful to children who are still growing and developing. Half the children we interviewed had experienced nausea, vomiting, headaches, or dizziness while they worked. Those symptoms are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, which happens when workers handle tobacco plants and absorb nicotine through their skin. Many children said they also mixed and sprayed toxic chemicals on the plants with no protective equipment, and some became violently ill afterward.
The families we interviewed did not intentionally put their children in harm’s way. They were committed to helping their children get an education so they could have a better future. Indeed, most of the children we interviewed attended school and worked in tobacco farming only outside of school hours.
But direct contact with tobacco in any form is hazardous work for children because of the nicotine in the leaves. Most of the families we spoke with had never received comprehensive information about the hazards for children of work on tobacco farms, so they did not know the risks to their children.
We urged the Jokowi government to take action to protect children from danger in tobacco fields. We called on the Health Ministry to work with other ministries to develop a public education campaign to raise awareness of the dangers to children of work on tobacco farms. In recent meetings with Human Rights Watch, government officials have said they need additional support and resources to get the campaign underway this year.
Indonesia already prohibits children under 18 from work “with harmful chemical substances.” The Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration should explicitly prohibit children from working in direct contact with tobacco in any form and increase labor enforcement efforts to make sure government inspectors check for workers’ safety, especially on small tobacco farms where children might be in danger.
In our meetings with government officials, we have heard many times that the tobacco industry is powerful in Indonesia, and that it is difficult to achieve policy changes the industry opposes. Surely eliminating child labor in tobacco farming is an issue tobacco companies also want to address.
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights make clear that companies have responsibilities for addressing human rights abuses in their supply chains. We shared our findings with the largest tobacco companies operating in Indonesia—Djarum, Gudang Garam, Philip Morris International (which owns Sampoerna), British American Tobacco (which owns Bentoel), and others. The large multinational tobacco companies have policies to prevent children from doing the most dangerous tasks on tobacco farms, but their policies are not strong enough, and they should do more to monitor for child labor when they buy Indonesian tobacco on the open market through traders.
The largest Indonesian companies—Djarum and Gudang Garam—do not appear to be taking any steps to prevent or address child labor in their supply chains. They have never responded to our many requests for information and meetings, and they do not make any information publicly available about their child labor policies.
These companies should not be profiting off the backs of Indonesian child workers.
Two months from now, the next tobacco-growing season will be underway, and children will be heading to the fields again. The controversy around the draft tobacco bill likely will not be resolved by then. But with decisive action, the Jokowi administration and tobacco companies could take steps to protect children from dangerous work in tobacco fields. Their futures depend on it.
This article was published on HRW's website on March 15, 2017.