Republicans have been busy over the past three years while in control of the House distracting Americans from an ever-increasing barrage of bad news about the deplorable conditions in this country. Most Americans are woefully unaware that America is home to the 2nd highest child poverty rate in the world, its infrastructure ranks close to third world nations of Barbados and Haiti, and recently that it is deadly to be an expectant mother in the richest nation on Earth. Nearly all of the news revealing there is nothing exceptional about America has had to come from outside, international groups, and this week another international organization revealed that an industry deeply embedded in the former Confederacy, or America’s third world region, is conducting practices typical of nations without protections for its workers; especially child labor.
Over the past three years Republicans have intimated that as part of their never-ending anti-regulatory crusade, long-standing child labor laws should be abolished to give corporations a dispensable and cheap labor force loosely resembling slave labor the South seceded and waged a Civil War to protect. Although they have not yet succeeded in eliminating child labor laws, an international rights group released a report that should inform Americans what Republicans have in store for America’s children if they are successful. Since Republicans have kept the people distracted with phony scandals, it was left to Human Rights Watch (HRW) to push the federal government to take steps to protect children working on tobacco farms in states such as North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia
The HRW report revealed that children, as young as 7 years old, are working long hours under hazardous conditions in tobacco fields harvesting nicotine and pesticide-laced tobacco leaves and they are demanding the government take action to eliminate the practice and for cigarette makers to push for safety on farms from which they buy tobacco. Since the tobacco industry profits from young children working in fields instead of in classrooms, there is no chance the industry will do much more than feign disgust and ignorance and task Republicans to find another distraction. In fact, Human Rights Watch met with most of the world’s largest cigarette makers to discuss its findings they hoped would push them to embrace or strengthen policies to prevent child labor abuses safely hidden in their supply chains.
According to HRW’s children’s rights researcher and co-author of the damning report, Margaret Wurth, “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.” The tobacco industry did exactly as expected and said they are concerned about child labor in their supply chains and claimed they developed standards requiring growers to provide a safe work environment for young children, and acknowledged that “This report uncovers serious child labor abuses that should not occur on any farm, anywhere. More work remains to be done to eliminate child and other labor abuses in tobacco growing” according to Philip Morris International CEO Andre Calantzopoulos.
However, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, the Altria Group Inc., said through a spokesman the company has no intention of making any moves to protect the young children being poisoned by nicotine and pesticides because “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.” According to the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, about 736,500 children under 18 worked on U.S. farms in 2012, but conveniently there are no figures for children as young as seven working on tobacco farms. The Human Rights Watch report noted that American agriculture labor laws allow children to work longer hours at younger ages and in more hazardous conditions than children in any other industry, and that children as young as 12 can be hired for unlimited hours on a farm of any size, but there is no minimum age for children to work on small farms.
The Labor Department proposed changing laws to prohibit children under 16 from working on tobacco farms, but big tobacco’s money and influence scuttled the changes in 2012 despite the danger to children as young as seven. Of the over 140 children HRW interviewed throughout 2012 and 2013, three-quarters reported vomiting, nausea, and headaches while working on tobacco farms that are consistent with nicotine poisoning known as Green Tobacco Sickness occurring when workers absorb nicotine through their skin from handling tobacco plants. Most of the children interviewed reported working long hours, often in extreme heat without overtime pay, sufficient breaks, and no adequate protective clothing or gear. One 17-year-old who had worked in tobacco fields since he was 11 said, “The conditions are inhumane and they should improve them,” and that “kids should primarily focus on school and shouldn’t be in the fields; that’s not a place for children.” The tobacco industry, and a Republican Kentucky state legislator, disagree and inferred the government should butt out of the tobacco industry’s business.
Kentucky state Senator Paul Hormback farms about 100 acres of tobacco and said there is no need for further federal regulations to keep his child labor force safe. Hormback parroted the typical Republican response to any regulations meant to protect labor, especially young children’s labor; “People get pretty extreme about trying to protect everybody from everything. It’s hard manual labor, but there’s nothing wrong with hard manual labor.” Hormback is right on both accounts; there is nothing wrong with hard manual labor for adults. The only labor young children should be involved in is working hard in school; not laboring in hazardous conditions to profit the tobacco industry. Also, decent human beings do tend to get pretty extreme about protecting young children from slaving in hazardous conditions, or any conditions for that matter; especially when they are being poisoned by nicotine and pesticides.
Republicans have yearned to abolish child labor laws since they were enacted decades ago because lacking the ability to force indentured servitude on people of color, especially in the former Confederacy, the next best thing is enslaving children as young as seven who have no redress except for an international organization such as Human Rights Watch exposing the hideous practice. Republicans, or their Koch-affiliated tobacco industry money machine, are not going to take any steps to abolish the practice of sending young children to slave in tobacco fields damning report or not. If nothing else, at least Human Rights Watch’s report informs Americans not only of a despicable abuse of young children in former Confederate states, but they revealed what all America’s children have to look forward to when the disease infecting the Southern United States spreads across America and transforms the entire nation into a third world country where children as young as seven are forced into hard manual labor in hazardous conditions.