Rayner Ramirez

The largest tobacco company in the United States has announced new child labor standards that will prohibit children under 16 from working on U.S. tobacco farms. Altria, the parent company of Phillip Morris USA, makers of Marlboro cigarettes, said their new labor standards will take effect in their 2015 contracts with growers.

Under the new contracts, Altria will require parental consent for children under 18 working in tobacco farms.

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“Altria and its companies remain committed to addressing the important issue of child labor in tobacco farming,” said Jeffrey Caldwell, spokesman for Altria. He told Fusion that enforcement of the new rules would be done through third party contractors that monitor the company's supply chain.

A Fusion Investigates report published earlier this year found children as young as 8 working alongside their parents in tobacco fields in North Carolina. Fusion’s story was followed by a May 2014 Human Rights Watch report that found child tobacco workers on U.S. farms are exposed to nicotine, pesticides and extreme heat.

Parents of children working in tobacco fields told Fusion that their children work alongside them to supplement their household incomes. Tobacco workers are typically paid an hourly minimum wage for trimming tobacco, and get paid a by-piece rate for harvesting.

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Asked if Altria had a provision that would provide better pay for workers to ensure that parents won’t have to rely on their children, Caldwell said “We have no control over pay. The pay is between the growers and the labor they hire.”

The new labor code is being hailed as an important advance.

“Altria Group has taken an important step toward protecting younger children from the dangers of tobacco farming,” said Margaret Wurth, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Still, more needs to be done, advocacy groups insist. Norma Flores, director of Children in the Fields Campaign at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Program, says the tobacco industry should prohibit all teens under 18 from working in tobacco fields.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week and prohibited most children from working in factories. But agriculture has always been an exception. Under the law, children under 12 are allowed to work in farming.

“We are extremely concerned that these new industry policies are not backed by U.S. law, which continues to leave our children unprotected,” said Flores.  “Congress and President Obama have the responsibility to ensure all children have a healthy childhood and access to quality educational opportunities — both which are robbed from child tobacco workers.”

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After the publication of this article, another tobacco company took steps to limit child labor. R.J. Reynolds, the second largest tobacco company in the United States and maker of the Camel brand, will also prohibit growers in their supply chain from hiring children under 16 from working in tobacco fields.

@fusion