Child Labour in the US Tobacco Industry
Under international law, anyone under the age of eighteen is considered a child, and the same set of laws state that no child should be allowed to work in hazardous conditions. Despite this, and due to various loopholes in the law, it remains legal for young people to work in the tobacco industry in the USA, with parental permission. The number of hours they can work per week is unlimited.
In the state of North Carolina, where tobacco farming is a major industry, a considerable number of people live in poverty. Because work on the tobacco fields pays relatively well, and many impoverished families need the supplemental income from their children’s work, there are many young people working on tobacco farms. This work exposes them to health risks including nicotine poisoning, heat stroke, and pesticide poisoning, and the developing bodies of young people are all the more susceptible to these risks. All of the adolescents who appear here described symptoms of nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness and lightheadedness both while at work and afterwards.
Most of the major tobacco companies have in recent years put in place policies stating that they do not employ people below the age of sixteen, due to pressure from human rights groups, but they still allow people of sixteen years or more to work, and there are in fact many people below that age still working on the plantations. Sub-contracting often allows the tobacco companies to avoid blame, and there is still no law preventing farmers from employing younger workers.
Some of the subjects of these photographs appear wearing the makeshift protective clothing that they wear while at work, or with their identities otherwise concealed from the camera. They are concerned about the repercussions of discussing the hazardous conditions in which they work.
Also pictured here are farmers who own the fields on which these children work, and some outreach workers and doctors. The farmers either claim that everyone working on their fields is over the age of eighteen, or that there are in fact no health risks to working in the tobacco fields.
This series was commissioned by Human Rights Watch, and published as a standalone printed report.