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Report: Children Working in VA Tobacco Fields

An audit commissioned by Reynolds American identifies instances of minors working in unsafe conditions on contracted tobacco farms in Virginia. (Marcus Bleasdale for Human Rights Watch)
An audit commissioned by Reynolds American identifies instances of minors working in unsafe conditions on contracted tobacco farms in Virginia. (Marcus Bleasdale for Human Rights Watch)
May 9, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. - Children are working in Virginia's tobacco fields and some in hazardous conditions.

That's one of the findings of an audit commissioned by Reynolds American of its 373 contract farms.

The audit company, Footprint BenchStrength, found 40 percent of farms surveyed employing minors and not complying with federal law.

A portion of those had kids performing hazardous work.

Justin Flores, vice president with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), says this isn't just a matter of children working on family farms.

"Most of the folks talked about in the study worked with labor contractors, and they're certainly not as caring and concerned for their well-being as their parents or grandparents or uncles would be," says Flores.

Footprint BenchStrength noted in its audit that workers' housing and family labor were outside the scope of the commissioned report.

In a statement on its website, Reynolds American says it doesn't employ farm workers or grow its own tobacco and therefore, the company has "no direct control over their sourcing, their training, their pay rates or their housing."

The company says it regularly performs audits to assess the safety and conditions on contracted farms.

FLOC organizers have planned a protest outside the Reynolds American shareholder meeting at the company headquarters in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Flores says it's important to recognize that questionable farm-labor conditions go far beyond tobacco and extend to a state's food supply.

"We will see change as we continue to publicize and educate people about what's going on in the fields," says Flores. "Reminding people it's not just tobacco, that these folks that are working in tobacco are also harvesting your sweet potatoes, strawberries, cucumbers."

All minors interviewed reported having been trained in general farm safety including recognition of heat stroke and green tobacco sickness.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - VA