By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The ban by two leading U.S. tobacco growers' groups on the use of child labor puts pressure on Washington to end the employment of children in hazardous and unhealthy work, a children's rights activist said on Thursday.
The United States is the world's fourth largest tobacco producer and Jo Becker, children's rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said the ban meant hundreds of thousands of child workers would be "protected from real danger".
U.S. labor law allows children to be employed in tobacco fields where, a recent HRW report showed, they suffer vomiting, nausea and other symptoms of acute nicotine poisoning.
"The Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina (TGANC)and the Council for Burley Tobacco represent more than half of the tobacco farmers in the four key U.S. tobacco-growing states," Becker told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
"By implementing this policy, growers will make the Obama administration think about addressing the gaps in U.S. law and regulations that put child tobacco workers at risk."
The TGANC announced on Wednesday that it had adopted a policy of opposing the employment of children under the age of 16, after the Council for Burley Tobacco passed a similar resolution in July.
An HRW report in May documented hazardous child labor on tobacco farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, four states that account for 90 percent of the tobacco grown in the United States.
Children reported vomiting, nausea, headaches and dizziness while working on tobacco farms, all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, the report found.
Many said they worked 60-hour weeks without overtime pay, often in extreme heat, without shade or sufficient breaks, and wore no, or inadequate, protective gear.
NO LIMITS ON CHILD LABOR ON FARMS
Under U.S. labor law, there are no restrictions on children working on tobacco farms despite the hazardous nature of the crop, Becker said.
"There is a double standard in the U.S. child labor law between agriculture and other sectors.
"Outside of agriculture, the employment of children under 14 is prohibited, and even 14- and 15-year-olds can only work in certain jobs for a set number of hours each day," she added.
In an open letter to the Obama administration in August, HRW and more than 50 other non-governmental organizations urged the U.S. government to take regulatory action to ban children from hazardous work on tobacco farms.
Thirty-five members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez on Sept. 20, urging the Labor Department to prohibit the employment of children for hazardous work in tobacco farming.
Becker said HRW had urged 10 of the world's largest tobacco companies to ban the use of children under 18 in hazardous work on farms in their global supply chains.
"The leading tobacco groups should stop children from any work that involves direct contact with tobacco plants," she said. "Some of these companies have weak child labor policies that are pointless and others have no policies at all."
HRW is an international NGO that conducts research and advocacy on human rights.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert; editing by Tim Pearce)