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Workers made their way across a field shrouded in fog as they hoed weeds from a burley tobacco crop near Warsaw, Ky.

Ed Reinke • Associated Press file,

Children on tobacco farms are at risk, rights group says

  • Article by: Associated Press
  • May 14, 2014 - 5:43 PM

– An international rights group is pushing the federal government and the tobacco industry to take further steps to protect children working on U.S. tobacco farms.

A report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch claims that children as young as 7 are sometimes working long hours in fields harvesting nicotine- and pesticide-laced tobacco leaves under sometimes hazardous conditions. Most of what the group documented is legal, but it wants cigarette makers to push for safety on farms from which they buy tobacco.

Human Rights Watch details findings from interviews with more than 140 children working on farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, where a majority of the country’s tobacco is grown.

“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, children’s rights researcher and co-author of the report.

Human Rights Watch met with many of the world’s biggest cigarette makers and tobacco suppliers to discuss its findings and push them to adopt or strengthen policies to prevent the practices in their supply chains.

The companies say they are concerned about child labor in their supply chains and have developed standards, including requiring growers to provide a safe work environment and adhere to child labor laws.

“This report uncovers serious child labor abuses that should not occur on any farm, anywhere,” Andre Calantzopoulos, CEO of Philip Morris International Inc., the world’s second-biggest cigarette seller, said in a statement. “More work remains to be done to eliminate child and other labor abuses in tobacco growing.”

Altria Group Inc., owner of the nation’s biggest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, said it wants suppliers to follow the law. But Altra spokesman Jeff Caldwell also said that restricting tobacco work to people 18 and over “is really contrary to a lot of the current practices that are in place in the U.S. and is at odds in these communities where family farming is really a way of life.”

About 736,500 children under 18 worked on U.S. farms in 2012, but there are no figures for children working on tobacco farms.

Less than 1 percent of U.S. farmland grows tobacco, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture.

U.S. farm labor laws allow children to work longer hours at younger ages and in more hazardous conditions than children in any other industry, Human Rights Watch said.

In 2011, the Labor Department proposed changes that would have prohibited children under 16 from working on tobacco farms, but they were withdrawn in 2012.

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