Child labour in the United States: Abuse persists despite recent efforts
Davina Durgana | Senior Researcher, Walk Free Foundation
On any given day in 2016, there were 24.9 million people in forced labour in the world. Of these, 16 million were victims of forced labour exploitation in sectors such as agriculture/fishing, construction, domestic work, and manufacturing.1Agriculture is a particularly risky industry as 11.3 percent of victims of forced labour worldwide were exploited in agriculture and the fishing industry.2 Globally, 68 percent of victims of forced labour in agriculture, forestries, and fishing were male and 32 percent were female.3 Forced labour prevalence in the Americas is a significant problem and represents 1.3 per 1,000 people.4
In the Americas region, there are several inherently vulnerable populations that comprise known victims of modern slavery, such as seasonal and temporary agricultural
workers, international migrants, and undocumented migrants, situations in which children are even more endangered. The third largest number of international
migrants globally was born in Latin America and the Caribbean (38 million).5While there are many migration trends throughout the Americas, one notable country of
destination is the United States. These migrant populations to the United States are especially vulnerable due to recent border control measures, including recent controversy over the separation and subsequent detention of at least 2,342 children from their parents during attempted border crossings by US border officials.6
In 2017, the United States held the largest number of international migrants (50 million), which is 19 percent of the world’s total international migrant population.7 Many of
these are seasonal and temporary agricultural workers who also face hazardous and exploitative working conditions. Often, children of undocumented seasonal and temporary workers, who may or may not be US citizens themselves, are particularly vulnerable and involved in hazardous and exploitative labour. This is exacerbated because existing labour laws and protections for children are difficult to enforce if the populations are not easy to find and when the exact nature of the work conditions of the minors is difficult to ascertain,8 such as on tobacco farms in the United States.9
There were an estimated 1.3 million child labourers in tobacco fields in 2011.10 Human Rights Watch has found that hundreds of thousands of children work in agriculture in the United States, often forgoing educational opportunities and requirements, fair wage payments and labour protections, and imperil their health and lives, while facing potential exploitation in modern slavery as they continue to work under exploitative conditions.11 “Men, women, and children who cultivate tobacco experience long hours of stoop labour, harassment in work activities, abject poverty, staggering debt, exposure to nicotine and pesticides, and poor health.”12 Work on tobacco farms is considered to be dangerous for children due to the potential for acute nicotine poisoning from close proximity and handling of tobacco. Acute nicotine poisoning includes symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headaches, loss of appetite, and sleeplessness.13 This poisoning, also called “green tobacco sickness”, occurs when workers absorb nicotine through their skin while having contact with tobacco plants.14 In fact, in the United States, agriculture as an industry often involves vulnerable children without work authorisation or with limited English language skills due to limited oversight and regulation by the government, representing one of the most vulnerable groups in the Americas to labour exploitation.15
While the tobacco companies benefitting from this child labour must be held accountable, there are many efforts that the United States government can and should also undertake to ensure the protection of minors in all hazardous fields. While comprehensive reform to US legislation regarding child labour on farms and in hazardous conditions is still necessary to ensure that their education and health are safeguarded, there are positive developments to protect minors from the dangers of tobacco farming. The Sustainable Tobacco Programme (STP) covers 180 tobacco leaf suppliers and five million smallholder farms in 52 countries.
Under this commitment and in compliance with the UK Modern Slavery Act, the British American Tobacco has recently complied with audits of their direct supply chains and risk assessments of indirect supply chains.16 However, the challenge of removing child labourers from the tobacco industry is described as a “double burden”17 both due to the labour issues involved, as well as the dangerous nature of this crop for children and others to handle.
Additionally, as more scrutiny is given to this issue in the United States, it appears that total numbers of child labourers in American tobacco fields has decreased but also increased in other areas with less available protections. This population is believed to have shifted from more developed countries such as Turkey, Brazil, and the United States, to Argentina, India, and Zimbabwe between 2000 and 2013.18 Despite these changes, many child labourers still believe that child labour will persist as a major issue in tobacco farming in the United States. Former child labourer, Jacqueline Castillo, states, “You can barely spot us, because we’re really small and short…There’s still a lot of 7, 12, 13-year-olds working. I don’t think it’s ever going to change.”19