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Group urges tobacco companies to protect U.S. child workers

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. children working in domestic tobacco fields regularly suffer from breathing problems, nausea and other ailments, an international rights group said in a report on Wednesday, urging the industry to develop tougher protections for its youngest workers.

Human Right Watch, which documented working conditions for children in four U.S. states, said it found many children on tobacco farms were in direct contact with the plant's leaves, leading to serious ailments consistent with nicotine poisoning.

"I didn’t feel well, but I still kept working. I started throwing up," said one 16-year-old worker, who worked pulling tops off of tobacco plants to help increase yields, according to Human Rights Watch, which interviewed 141 youths aged 7 to 17 working on tobacco farms in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

The group notified 10 tobacco companies of its findings, including Altria Group Inc, Lorillard Inc, Philip Morris International Inc, and Reynolds American Inc, and urged them to boycott tobacco from farms that do not have policies in place to protect workers younger than 18.

It also contacted other cigarette makers as well as two tobacco leaf merchant companies, Alliance One International and Universal Corp.

"We want them to put strong child labor provisions into these contracts saying: 'We won't buy your tobacco unless you can assure us that you're not using hazardous child labor,'" Jo Becker, the group's top advocate for youth issues, told Reuters.

The group said Philip Morris was already developing specific protections. The company, which makes the popular Marlboro cigarette, said it was open to industry standards.

"Clearly there is opportunity to align,” Miguel Coleta, its director of external labor policies, told Reuters.

Other companies said they were developing child labor policies or reviewing the report. Still, no company explicitly prohibits those under age 18 from having contact with tobacco, Human Rights Watch said.

Tom Harkin, chairman of the U.S. Senate's panel on health and labor issues, said in a statement none of the companies' policies were sufficient and that he would contact them in coming days.

While there is no accurate count of youths working in U.S. tobacco fields, it is not illegal for children to hold jobs in agriculture, and many do so out of financial need. Many are Hispanic and come from low-income families, Becker said.

By law, children cannot work on U.S. farms during school hours, but they can work in the field at other times, and hours increase especially in the summer, when school is not in session and the tobacco crop season is at its peak.

Like other agricultural work, pesticide exposure and injuries are also concerns, the group said. Many youths also reported working 50 to 60 hours a week and earning less than minimum wage, which is $7.25 nationally but varies by state.

Current rules prohibit workers younger than 16 from performing hazardous farm jobs but do not specifically deem tobacco work as dangerous. The U.S. Labor Department proposed regulations in 2011 to address the issue, but they were withdrawn a year later, Human Rights Watch said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Michele Gershberg)

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