May 19, 2014 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment


“I got a headache before. It was horrible. It felt like there was something in my head trying to eat it.” 

Those are the words of a 12 year-old boy who works in the tobacco fields of eastern North Carolina. His words are just one of many from other young seasonal workers who work on U.S. tobacco farms in KY, NC, TN, and VA. Their experiences are catalogued in Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) “Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in US Tobacco Farming.” The report was released last week.

Credit: Human Rights Watch

The 139-page report was also the subject of editorials appearing on Sunday in the New York Times and Washington Post.  The Times noted the “gaping flaws in how America regulates child labor on farms,” and the Post reminded us that these young workers are day laborers or the children of migrants who are “being exploited” in work that is “hardly a vocation beneficial to society.”

During 2012 and 2013, HRW interviewed 141 children ages 7 to 17 who said they had worked in tobacco picking or curing. Nearly three-quarters of them reported experiencing symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, skin rashes, and difficulty breathing. Their reports of adverse health effects are consistent with the literature on green tobacco illness (e.g., here, here, here.)

The young workers’ sicknesses could have been prevented had the Obama Administration not caved to political pressure at the youngsters’ expense. The Labor Department had proposed a regulation in September 2011 to protect agricultural workers under age 16 from a handful of very dangerous tasks, including working in tobacco production and curing. Opposition to the rule from the farm lobby was fierce. But that was no surprise. Opposition to worker health and safety regulations is par for the course. Members of Congress jumped on the bandwagon. And it wasn’t just Republican lawmakers leading the charge, as the New York Times’ editorial asserts. A quick Google search provides a sampling of Democratic Senators who called for the rule’s withdrawal: Max Baucus (D-MT), Dan Boren (D-OK), Al Franken (D), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and  Jon Tester (D-MT).

Feeling the heat in an election year, word on the street is that the White House instructed the Labor Department to withdraw the proposal in April 2012. To emphasize the point, their announcement read:

“To be clear,” a 2012 Labor Department statement read, “this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”

The Administration washed its hands of protecting the health and safety of young workers. It even erased all evidence of the proposed rule from the Labor Department’s website.

HRW’s investigation, conducted in the time period following the Administration’s cop out, is a powerful example of the health consequences of failing to regulate workplace hazards. The Administration’s failure is especially pathetic because it involves our country’s most vulnerable workers. But the Obama White House can right this wrong, or at least right some of it.

The Labor Department’s proposed regulation addressed ten tasks that pose particularly high risk of serious injury or death to young workers. I think all of them are pretty dangerous, but I suspect that child safety experts, if pressed, could probably identify those that rise to the top of the list. Working as a pesticide handler, or in a grain silo, or with tobacco, all sound like good candidates to me. I can’t help but believe that those who opposed the proposal in its entirety, could agree that at least some of these hazardous tasks should be off-limits for workers younger than 16 years.

One characteristic of an effective leader is admitting mistake. The Administration should do so on this issue. Even an abbreviated version of the Labor Department’s 2011 proposal that simply addressed children working on tobacco farms and with pesticides would be an important step forward.

It’s the Administration’s fault that young workers are still toiling in U.S. tobacco fields. The HRW’s report resurrects the issue. The Washington Post’s editorial board has it right:

“Now that Mr. Obama has been re-elected and no longer needs to court Southern swing states, his administration should reverse its pathetic retreat.”

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