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Child Farmworkers Barred From Handling Pesticides, But Not Tobacco

New rules from the EPA include a ban on workers under 18 handling toxic pesticides, although children 16 and younger can still legally work in the fields.

Posted on September 28, 2015, at 5:36 p.m. ET

GVnayR, Wikimedia Commons

Those who plant, tend, and harvest the food American families put on their tables will now enjoy more of the safety measures that already cover workers in most other jobs. The Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday that the country's two million agricultural workers will get new protections from toxic pesticide use.

"The same rules that have protected other American workers from dangerous cancer- and birth-defect causing pesticides are finally going to protect farmworkers under the new EPA regulations," said United Farm Workers (UFW) President Arturo Rodriguez. "It's been a long time coming, but it has come today."

The rules, last updated two decades ago, include increased safeguards for whistleblowers, new record-keeping requirements, additional postings of information on hazards and rights, and an age minimum of 18 years for workers that apply pesticides in the fields.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the changes will reduce risks of injury and illness for those working on farms, in forests, greenhouses, and nurseries, which result in sick days, lost wages, and medical bills.

Environmental Protection Agency

Rodriguez called the updated rules "momentous" and a dream realized for the farmworkers who fought for their rights in the days of UFW founder César Chávez, citing Chávez's question, "What good does it do to achieve the blessings of collective bargaining and make economic progress for people when their health is destroyed in the process?"

But while the new prohibition on children under 18 handling pesticides is undoubtedly good news for the country's youngest farmworkers, labor activists argue that many will continue to be exposed to another serious health risk: nicotine, from the tobacco fields where plenty of children still work each day.

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Library of Congress / Via commons.wikimedia.org

For seven years, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has been putting pressure on Reynolds American, maker of cigarette brands including Camel and Newport, to end child labor in its supply chain and give workers collective bargaining rights. Now, they're planning to call for a boycott of the company's products, as Chávez did with grapes in Delano, California in the 1960's. Monday's EPA announcement coincides with the 50th anniversary of that early fight for basic labor protections.

In 1938, a ban on child labor under the Fair Labor Standards Act brought children out of factories and into classrooms. But today, under federal law, children 12 and older may legally work on farms for unlimited hours, so long as their schedules don't conflict with school.

Since the 1938 law excluded agricultural workers from many rights and workplace standards, both adult and child farmworkers today lack legal protections for collective organizing, as well as complete coverage under wage and hour regulations.

Despite this obstacle, and in part because of it, farmworkers have taken up methods outside of conventional unions — workers' centers, committees, and supply-chain-based strategies — to change their labor conditions. Without legal protection from retaliation for banding together, these worker groups often appeal to consumers and corporations to take action to improve standards.

Abbas Momani / AFP / Getty Images

Young FLOC members, including teenage farmworkers, delivered more than 20,000 signatures to Reynolds' Washington, D.C. office in August, calling on the company to sign an agreement to improve wages and housing for tobacco farmworkers and to end the company's employment of workers under 18. Bryan Hatchell, a spokesperson for Reynolds American Inc., said in an email the petition had been received.

"Growers may employ 16- and 17-year-old workers only with written parental consent, and only after they have received appropriate safety training," Hatchell wrote, and "R.J. Reynold's Grower Contracts prohibit the use of child labor" by those under 16 years of age.

One worker who helped deliver the petition, Saray Cambray Alvarez, now 14, has worked in tobacco fields since she was 6. She became a face for child and teen workers exposed to risks of nicotine poisoning last year, with her photo on the front page of the New York Times.

"If they raised wages, we wouldn't have to be out here," Alvarez said, in advance of the petition's delivery. "The reason children work in the tobacco fields is that their parents don't get paid enough."

A detailed 2014 study by Human Rights Watch documented the underlying economic reasons for the persistence of child labor in American agriculture today. The report found that children, some younger than 10 years old, routinely work 50 to 60 hour weeks harvesting tobacco, exposed to nicotine and (prior to the new EPA regulations) pesticides, to supplement their parents' sub-subsistence earnings.

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Paul Sancya / AP

The paper's authors interviewed 141 child tobacco workers, ages 7 to 17, in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, the country's four largest tobacco-producing states. They found that the children and teens were disproportionately relatives of migrant and immigrant workers, rather than members of family farms. (Farm owners and their family members are exempt from the new EPA regulations.)

Jane Buchanan, a co-author of the report, said that little has changed since the watchdog group released their findings last year. Some companies and growers' associations, trade groups that set voluntary standards in the industry, have raised their minimum age for workers to 16, but enforcement of these standards, without federal law deeming the work hazardous, can be lax, she said.

Next week, Alvarez will meet with Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez to discuss remaining work to be done to end child labor in agriculture. But given that lawmakers haven't prevented child labor with regulations so far, FLOC "isn't holding its breath" for the the Department of Labor or federal government to act meaningfully now, according to Vice President Justin Flores.

"Child labor in tobacco farming will only be eliminated when there is a mechanism in place for workers to negotiate conditions with their employers," said FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez.

Matt Rourke / AP

This winter, FLOC plans launch a boycott of major convenience store chains that sell Reynolds' product and account for a large percentage of its consolidated revenue, according to Velasquez.

The tactic is similar to those used by Chávez in Delano. Other farmworker groups, such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, based in Florida, have also successfully negotiated labor conditions with growers after mobilizing consumers to boycott chains and products in the recent past.

"Laws alone will not solve the problem," Velasquez wrote earlier this summer. "The only effective remedy for ending this cycle has been to extend to farmworkers the same basic labor rights enjoyed by other sectors. Given that opportunity, the workers themselves will bargain away the precarious wages and job insecurity that drive poverty, hunger, and child labor."

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