Young Children Are Working One of America's Most Dangerous Jobs – And It's Totally Legal

Young Children Are Working One of America's Most Dangerous Jobs – And It's Totally Legal

The news: If you're a 7-year-old in the U.S., you are by law too young to buy a cigarette at the counter — but you are old enough to work in the tobacco fields as a day laborer.

Human Rights Watched released a disturbing report Wednesday on child labor in America's tobacco farms. The four states that grow 90% of U.S. tobacco — North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia — allow children as young as 7 to work in these farms for minimum wage. And it's completely legal.

That's right: Elementary school-age children are harvesting tobacco on America's farms, exposing themselves to nicotine, toxic pesticides and dangerous machinery.


Image Credit: Human Rights Watch

Two-thirds of the children who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch indicated signs of acute nicotine poisoning. Children were also often exposed to harmful pesticides, some of which are known neurotoxins. Many also said they worked long hours without overtime pay, or worked in extreme heat and dangerous conditions without adequate protective gear.

How is this allowed to happen? Under current U.S. law, children as young as 12 can work in farms of any size with their parent's' permission. And for small farms, there isn't even a minimum age.

"The U.S. 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 report's co-author. "Farming is hard work anyway, but children working on tobacco farms get so sick that they throw up, get covered by pesticides and have no real protective gear."

Back iIIn 2011, the Labor Department attempted to raise minimum age in tobacco farms to 16;, but thatthe proposal failed a year later. But while U.S. legislation bears responsibility for allowing underage children to work in these dangerous conditions, tobacco companies are at fault as well. Some like Altria — the parent company of Philip Morris USA — do not control production, which means contractors may implement different standards of labor.

"Tobacco companies shouldn't benefit from hazardous child labor," Wurth said. "They have a responsibility to adopt clear, comprehensive policies that get children out of dangerous work on tobacco farms, and make sure the farms follow the rules."


Why this is important: The health costs of working in a tobacco field are enormous, especially for children. A 2005 University of Kentucky study found that tobacco workers can absorb as much as 54 milligrams of dissolved nicotine in a single day — that is the equivalent of 50 cigarettes. And, according to Human Rights Watch, "In 2012, two-thirds of children under 18 who died from occupational injuries were agricultural workers, and there were more than 1,800 nonfatal injuries to children under 18 working on U.S. farms."

"I would barely eat anything because I wouldn't get hungry," said a 13-year-old child worker identified as Elena G said. "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."

And while the tobacco lobby may not be as powerful as it once was, the downturn in business is precisely why these companies are refusing to enforce stricter labor regulations. 

"As consumers in the U.S. and other affluent countries smoke less ... in order for them to keep the price of cigarettes relatively low, they have to keep the price of labor low," said Marty Otañez, a board member at the Human Rights and Tobacco Control Network.

While it may make business sense for Big Tobacco to keep labor costs down, it is doing so at the expense of children. How would you like an extra sprinkle of child exploitation with your next cigarette?

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Eileen Shim

Eileen is a writer living in New York. She studied comparative literature and international studies at Yale University, and enjoys writing about the intersection of culture and politics.

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