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Child Labor Impacts Health and Education

Child labor persists and continues to grow throughout the world as a result of dynamic social, economic, and political contexts. Cultural factors also govern the roles of children and, therefore, participation by children in domestic or income-generating labor varies greatly according to context. There are many factors to consider when drawing the relationship between child labor to health and education, for example, which makes it a very complex global issue. However, a new report released by the Human Rights Watch provides research on the specific case of tobacco farming in the United States, where children are particularly vulnerable to the direct effects of handling tobacco plants and the dangerous practices used to harvest them.

Children who work on tobacco farms are exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, and other dangers. The report, Tobacco's Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming, documents the results of research and field reports done in four states where 90% of U.S. tobacco is grown for distribution to tobacco product companies around the world. Children who spend long hours working in the fields have reported dizziness, headaches, nausea, and vomiting, all symptoms associated with acute nicotine poisoning known as Green Tobacco Sickness that occurs when nicotine is absorbed through the skin after prolonged contact with tobacco plants. Exposure to pesticides is also common in tobacco fields. Children are uniquely vulnerable to the adverse effects of toxic exposures, since their bodies are still in crucial stages of development, according to the report. Further, the labor involved in harvesting tobacco plants is intensive and requires use of heavy machinery, sharp tools, and physical strain.

Although most tobacco farming performed by children takes place during summer months when they are out of school, the report points out that this form of child labor does have an impact on education. If children move often with their families to perform seasonal work, such as tobacco farming, they do not have an opportunity to settle into a community. They, therefore, do not enroll in school. Some children miss long periods of school or drop out altogether because they feel obligated to contribute to their family financially. Children are also forced to miss school due to ill-health.

International law recognizes that there are potential benefits of some forms of work and does not prohibit children from working. However, certain forms of labor, those that jeopardize children's physical or mental health, safety, or morals, are prohibited for those under the age of 18 according to the International Labor Organization's (ILO) Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention. In the U.S., children 12 and older are permitted to work in agriculture.

The United States has ratified the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention, but there is currently no U.S. law that accounts for the hazardous conditions imposed upon children who work with the harvest and processing of tobacco plants for distribution to tobacco product manufacturers worldwide. Human Rights Watch urges recognition of children's vulnerability within this industry and the need for decisive action by United States lawmakers and the tobacco companies. Children's development, health, safety, and overall well-being are at risk if policies are not created that prohibit them from working with tobacco.

For More Information:
Tobacco's Hidden Children (full report PDF download)
ILO Conventions and Recommendation on Child Labour (website)
Child Labor Coalition – A U.S. network for the exchange of information about child labor (website)