National Consumers League

World Day Against Child Labor event stresses dangers for child workers in tobacco


The Child Labor Coalition, Human Rights Watch, International Labor Rights Forum, and NC Field recently joined together at a congressional briefing to share their perspectives on putting a stop to child labor in the dangerous tobacco industry in the United States and abroad, in honor of World Day Against Child Labor. Norma Flores-Lopez, the governance and collaboration and development manager of East Coast Migrant Head Start, the chair of Domestic Issues Committee of the Child Labor Coalition, and a former child laborer herself, was the moderator for the event. Four panelists were featured at the event to express their desire to combat exploitative child labor in the tobacco industry. 

Celia Ortiz, a tobacco worker from the age of 11 to 19 in North Carolina, gave a moving speech. Ortiz bravely described a typical day in the tobacco field as a teen. This included waking up at 5 a.m. to go blindly into work without any proper equipment, instructions, or warnings of the hazards of the job. 

She would work for hours on end, wearing a black trash bag in the summer heat with no water, breaks, or a proper bathroom. Ortiz said, “It was either you burn to death in the trash bag or you get wet and get sick.” The child laborers working the field with her all wore black trash bags over their clothes to protect themselves from the nicotine absorbing into their skin when the tobacco was wet from condensation. But, this was clearly not adequate protection because Ortiz recalled experiencing Green Tobacco Sickness at least twice each summer. “It is such a horrible feeling. I can’t even describe it,” said Ortiz about the ailment.

The former child laborer said that she was afraid to speak up about the unfair working circumstances because she would lose her job and not be able to support herself or her family. “I knew it was wrong that there were no bathrooms. I knew it was wrong that they were spraying pesticides around us. But I couldn’t say anything,” recounted Ortiz, who was forced to urinate on the side of the road instead of having a proper bathroom to use.

She said she wanted to prove to the adults that she could do the job without any complaints and that she was a good worker. Ortiz explained that she, like millions of other child laborers worldwide, needed the money and was not old enough to get a job elsewhere in a safer and more regulated environment. Ortiz concluded with, “I’m here today to give you an image of what it’s like. But it’s even worse out there for some other people.”

Zama Coursen-Neff, the executive director of the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, presented results from the Human Rights Watch report, which surveyed 141 child laborers in the U.S. Her organization found that there were children working all aspects of tobacco, including cultivating and harvesting the perilous crop. These kids were forced to work 50 to 60 hours a week in extreme heat with sharp tools and exposed to with pesticides. Three-fourths of these child workers reported getting sick at work, and two-thirds of them experienced acute nicotine poisoning, or otherwise referred to as Green Tobacco Sickness, which occurs when nicotine gets wet and is absorbed through the skin. Those affected by Green Tobacco Sickness recount feeling dizzy and like they “were going to die.”

Coursen-Neff pointed to a loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which provides no protections for kids working in tobacco. She said, “There’s no way to make working in tobacco safe for children.” And although some progress has been made in policies that are helping child laborers in tobacco, Coursen-Neff added, “These policy changes are important. But they are not enough. It is time to close the loopholes that leaves the U.S. behind other countries and leaves kids without protections that others have.”

Judy Gearhart, the executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, spoke on Malawi’s addiction to tobacco. Sixty percent of the country’s export is tobacco and the tobacco industry is its largest private sector employer. Gearhart explained that due to living in abject poverty, Malawians often enter bonded labor, in which a person’s labor is pledged for the repayment of a debt or obligation. But those entering bonded labor in Malawi are often exploited and stuck in their poor circumstances. People migrate up to the tobacco farms for work, and then it becomes very difficult to leave so they become trapped. The International Labor Rights Forum reported that these workers typically only make about $50 a year.

Malawi is categorized as a Tier 2 in the Trafficking in Persons Report published by the U.S. Department of State. A Tier 2 label is given to countries whose governments do not fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards. Gearhart expressed that there are solutions being proposed to help the problem of child labor in tobacco. She added, “We can’t just treat the symptoms of child labor, we need to treat the problem. We need to give the worker the dignity to sit at the table and negotiate a solution.”

The general secretary of the Tobacco and Allied Workers Union of Malawi (TOAWUM), Raphael Sandramu, also spoke of his personal understanding of child laborers involved in the tobacco industry in Malawi. He told attendees at the briefing: “Anyone in Malawi who sees [child labor] as a problem and wants to find a solution is seen as an enemy.” Sandramu explained that families are trafficked 500 kilometers away from their homes to work on tobacco farms with the hopes of making enough money to support their families and survive. The man of the family would sign a contract to work on the tobacco fields, but the man’s entire family was subject to the contract, and circumstances were often terribly unfair.

The laws are that no children under the age of 18 are allowed to work on tobacco fields; there are even signs on the fields that say “No workers under 18,” but these facades are far from the reality that children in Malawi face. Sandramu said he would see children as young as five years old working. And although his talk focused on child labor in Malawi, Sandruma said, “This is a worldwide problem, so let’s please join hands to bring an end to it.”