A Simple Matter of Right or Wrong, Mr. President

Sitting through a Congressional briefing on child labor in U.S. tobacco this past week was a personally painful experience. A sweet-faced young girl, Anna, described what working in tobacco fields is like: sickening fumes from pesticides, constant nausea and fatigue, crushing heat, along with an almost complete lack of sanitary facilities or fresh water to drink. Anna said she hoped her testimony would help other children and families, that she would NEVER want her own children to work in tobacco and that she hoped to work as an intern at Human Rights Watch to continue to learn and make a difference.

Tobacco Field, North Carolina © Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch 2015

Tobacco Field, North Carolina © Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch 2015

Anna started working picking tobacco at 13 years of age to help her mother. How is it that Anna's personal story is the only way our politicians can put a human face on their collective failure, over decades, to protect children from the predatory tobacco industry? All but a handful of the representatives who should have been in the room were too busy to attend. Anna, like all children working in American agriculture, works without protection of Federal Law and all of the best efforts to change this fact have met with political gridlock, all to protect the business models and profits of companies like R.J Reynolds and British American Tobacco.

There's a smell that comes from the tobacco industry that's all its own ... sacrificing the health of children WORLDWIDE. The Department of Labor reports that children are engaged in this practice in 16 countries including the U.S. Big tobacco routinely violates international law, their products lead directly to the deaths of over 6 million people annually and their industry costs our economies hundreds of billions of dollars a year to treat widespread illnesses that cigarettes cause, even second-hand.

Cynically, the tobacco companies pitch their products at our children. According to the CDC, they spent over 9 billion dollars on advertising last year to do just that.  Meanwhile, they're not above using children to actually harvest the tobacco. In fact, they seem to be not above anything, utterly lacking in morality. If it were left to me, this is a business I would outlaw, and executives who knowingly use children and spread death should have an orange jump suit in their Xmas stocking.

Human Rights Watch has been covering the affects on children of prolonged exposure to tobacco since 2013 and released a new report and video this week. According to their findings, children can legally work as young as 7 years of age, 12 to 14 hours a day.  Examining the pesticides, classes of neurotoxins were found that are linked to the onset of cancer, reproductive health problems in later life and depression.

"Sofia" 17 years old © Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch 2015

"Sofia" 17 years old © Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch 2015

Under increasing pressure, a few tobacco companies have voluntarily adopted policies to limit children 16 and under from working in their fields, but enforcement of these rules is both porous and failing to exclude 16 and 17-year-old children, a gaping loophole. Some U.S. tobacco farms continue to use middlemen or brokers to handle the hiring of pickers. Age checks are spotty and so the practice of employing children continues even as the companies are positioned to declare their ignorance of any violations.

I saw this same system at work in Nyarit, Mexico ten years ago with the same companies fully complicit ... looking the other way, setting up a false pretense of legality, to make more money off the backs of kids. At the time, I wanted to drag their executives into the fields and let them pick and inhale the fumes of pesticides for a week or so. Then you'd see some meaningful change!

My family hails from Nelson County, Virginia where they were share-croppers for over 200 years in Massie's Mill, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. There they grew tobacco and raised apples and peaches. As a boy, I helped my great-uncle Sam mix and spray pesticides on the fruit and tobacco. My brothers and I then helped pick. That was our family farm in the 1950's, not today's agribusiness passing itself off as a family farm to use children as labor.

So what should be done?  Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) have proposed legislation to PROHIBIT the employment of children under the age of 18 for work in direct contact with tobacco. This bill should be passed unanimously by both houses of Congress and the President should lobby actively for its passage and sign the bill. Saving generations of American children from work in the fields would make a fine presidential legacy.

Len Morris won the Iqbal Masih Award in 2012 from the United States Department of Labor for his work to end the worst forms of child labor. He is an independent documentary filmmaker and advocate for children.