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Everyone is aware that child labour, far from being an illusion, is a reality that is still present in many parts of the world.

Normally, we associate this practice with the  vicissitudes of developing countries, whose families feel forced to need the help of their youngest for the survival of the family unit. However, this same situation exists as well in countries that should a priori free of suspicion, with the United States among them.



The latest outcry put came in May of this year from the Human Rights Watch with its report Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming. In this report, the reality of thousands of children working in the vast tobacco plantations in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina, states in which child labour is permitted by law. Of the 133 children who were interviewed, some remarkable data was recorded, as seen in the following:

  • The average age that they began to work on the plantations is 13 years old.
  • The work day for the majority is around 50-60 hours per week.
  • 73% of children claimed to have felt nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, respiratory problems, skin disorders and loss of appetite, among others.

Logically, these symptoms are a result of exposure to a number of risk factors that are not being properly treated, or at times, not treated at all. This together with the special vulnerability of their young age results in a group whose health is greatly diminished by the development of their work. To what risk factors we referring?

  • Exposure to nicotine: The main risk factor is known as Green Tobacco Sickness, a form of poisoning from direct exposure to nicotine through the skin. Its symptoms include dizziness, nausea, vomiting and headaches. We must point out that the above exposure to nicotine has a synergistic effect with other risk factors also present in these plantations; specifically, the inhalation of pesticides and exposure to extreme heat.


  • Exposure to pesticide: More than half of the children interviewed reported seeing tractors spraying pesticides on the plot where they worked or in adjacent plantations. Others are responsible for driving tractors or simply applying pesticides substances directly on the ground without any protection. The health effects resulting from this direct exposure result in nausea, vomiting, dizziness, difficulty breathing, redness and swelling of the mouth, burning eyes and nose and itchy skin.
  • Elevated working locations: A part of the production process involves hanging large sticks with harvested tobacco stalks to later remove the bars from the dry tobacco. This task, which can reach more than 15 meters high is also carried out by minors in some plantations. As you can see in the image, the surface supporting both feet is very separated, thus hindering worker stability and willingly increasing the risk of falling from an elevated location.


  • Repetitive motion / awkward postures: The children interviewed in the study say repetitive movements, for example, turning  the wrist to reach the top of the plants, pinching the leaves above head height and pulling out weeds in a squatting position leaning on the hands and knees. Among the most reported injuries in this aspect centre on muscle pain in the back, shoulders, arms, hands and fingers.


  • Manual load handling: Some of the minor workers at plantations in Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee carry long heavy poles of tobacco to wagons for their further transportation to a barn, where the tobacco is cured. Sometimes there is no wagon and the transport is done by hand where another worker located on top of the barn receives the load. Fatigue and pain are the most common symptoms with this practice.
  • Use of machines Some children in the study reported working very close to or in proximity to hazardous machinery, including crushing and pressing machines used to compress the tobacco into bales.
  • Work with cutting tools: Many children in the study say they have cut themselves with knives –some with axes– while they were cutting tobacco leaves.


  • Inadequate access to water and health facilities: Many of the children interviewed say they are not provided with drinking water by their employers. There are not any facilities or units where they can wash their face and hands or relieve themselves.

In addition to these risk factors there is little or no training and feedback in the prevention of occupational hazards. Only some of them claim to have been trained on how to reduce the adverse health effects from exposure to nicotine and pesticides.

Another aggravating factor is the absolute lack of personal protective equipment. In this sense, many of them explain how they themselves are making their own PPE. A common practice is to use black garbage bags, which protect the skin from direct contact with the moist tobacco leaves after it has rained. No matter how old you are, necessity is the mother of invention and that applies to everyone: whether a senior citizen or a boy who is forced to grow up quickly.

Far from living the American dream, these tobacco children are a paradox in a society that, at least, continues to prohibit smoking at age 18.

Source: Human Rights Watch, 2014. Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming


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