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Harvest Of Shame: America’s Poisoned Children Need A Hashtag

Memo Pad Politics

Harvest Of Shame: America’s Poisoned Children Need A Hashtag


More than 50 years ago, CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow revealed to America the awful conditions suffered by migrant farm laborers in Harvest of Shame, an angry documentary that would become a classic. While conditions have improved for some of the families whose work provides our cornucopia of affordable food, there remains a special group of workers that our political system refuses to protect: the children who pick tobacco.

On May 14, Human Rights Watch issued “Tobacco’s Hidden Children” — a stunning report on child labor in the tobacco fields of North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. Interviewing kids in the fields who ranged in age from 7 to 17, the organization’s researchers compiled their dismal stories of back-breaking work, inadequate water and toilet facilities, and worst of all, the chronic illness brought on by poisoning from nicotine and pesticides.

What is most troubling is that almost all of the hardship and suffering inflicted on these children is legal, so long as they are above the age of 12.

Crouched under tall, wet tobacco plants in the scorching heat, the teenaged workers soon find out that summertime means constant nausea and vomiting, intense headaches, skin rashes, and irritated eyes. It is hard to breathe, to eat, or even to sleep, despite their exhaustion. Heat stroke is an everyday risk. Medical researchers believe that the long-term dangers include bladder cancer and heart disease, as well as damage to developing adolescent nervous systems from the neurotoxins in the pesticides so heavily used by tobacco growers.

As Gabriel Thompson discovered last year when he went undercover into North Carolina’s tobacco fields for The Nation magazine and The Investigative Fund, most children start working in the fields to help parents who are earning the minimum wage and barely putting food on the table (yet another reason why the minimum must be raised).  They start this work at age 12 without any real preparation and not understanding the hazards they will face.

As former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis once observed, the kids working tobacco are badly exploited and possibly crippled for life. That is why most countries — including places like Russia and Kazakhstan — prohibit children under 18 from working in tobacco fields. But not the United States, although the State Department spent nearly $3 million recently to curtail child tobacco labor in Malawi.

Why does the U.S. government still permit this outdated outrage? In the spring of 2010, Human Rights Watch released an earlier report on child labor in American agriculture, which included interviews with adolescent tobacco workers. Solis publicly praised the report and made a promise: “We simply cannot — and this administration will not — stand by while youngsters working on farms are robbed of their childhood.” The following year, her department issued a series of new proposed regulations to protect children from the worst farm jobs, such as working in grain silos, handling pesticides, or driving tractors without seatbelts or roll bars, which results in the most deaths. And the new rules banned hiring children to work in tobacco.

Naturally the agribusiness lobby objected, mobilizing all its forces from the American Farm Bureau and Monsanto to the beef, pork, and poultry producers to stop the child-protection rules from taking effect. They mounted a mendacious campaign claiming that family farms — specifically exempted from most of the rules — would be ruined. And those lies were eagerly parroted by conservative media outlets and figures like Sarah Palin — a dim loudmouth who urges compassion for her own offspring but couldn’t care less about farmworker kids. Republicans in Congress responded by threatening to cut the Labor Department’s budget.

Such selfish and self-serving behavior was to be expected from the Tea Party right , fronting for corporate interests as usual — although there was once a time when Republican politicians cared about children.

Far more disappointing was the response of the White House, which promptly surrendered to the lobbying pressure and overruled the Labor Department. In the spring of 2012, the department issued a press release that undid all the promises made by Solis — and promised instead that the regulations would not be pursued “for the duration of the Obama administration.”

Endorsing the big lies of the agribusiness lobby, the department — which admitted that the orders had come from the White House — said that the rules had been withdrawn to prove the administration’s “commitment to family farms and respecting the rural way of life.” And if that means poisoning children, presumably the White House respects such rural customs just as sincerely.

Is it too late to rectify this grotesque injustice? Perhaps Michelle Obama, an admirable advocate for endangered children in Nigeria, should look at the kids toiling on America’s farms, whose faces appear in the Human Rights Watch report and in the video that first aired in a superb report by Fusion TV’s Rayner Ramirez. The First Lady just might imagine her own daughters in their place. At the very least those young victims will need a hashtag, too, before they finally get what they deserve from her husband.

Photo: Marcus Bleasdale/Vii for Human Rights Watch

Joe Conason

A highly experienced journalist, author and editor, Joe Conason is the editor-in-chief of The National Memo, founded in July 2011. He was formerly the executive editor of the New York Observer, where he wrote a popular political column for many years. His columns are distributed by Creators Syndicate and his reporting and writing have appeared in many publications around the world, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and Harpers.

Since November 2006, he has served as editor of The Investigative Fund, a nonprofit journalism center, where he has assigned and edited dozens of award-winning articles and broadcasts. He is also the author of two New York Times bestselling books, The Hunting of the President (St. Martins Press, 2000) and Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (St. Martins Press, 2003).

Currently he is working on a new book about former President Bill Clinton's life and work since leaving the White House in 2001. He is a frequent guest on radio and television, including MSNBC's Morning Joe, and lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

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  1. L0C May 16, 2014

    As an English woman reading this story has truly sickened me. In Europe we have very strict child labour laws and this sort of thing could never happen here. How is it allowed to happen in the USA? What’s happening to America? That this is tolerated there is beyond belief!

    1. jointerjohn May 16, 2014

      Because unfortunately, in the U.S. profit is king. We have foolishly allowed business to buy our government. Our voting public is continually intoxicated on 24 hour cable television nonsense; “reality” TV, sports, and brainless celebrity worship. Mentally anemic from this intellectual junk food diet, half don’t even bother to vote, and many who do vote make their selection based upon fifteen-second attack ads. The U.S. worker has become a dupe, a willing pawn, due to his/her unwillingness to simply pay attention and give a damn.

      1. Mark Forsyth May 16, 2014

        You left out one very important influence upon the “U.S.Worker” That is the coercion of trying to live on low wages and ever decreasing purchasing power.That,along with all that you mention,goes far in narrowing ones interests.

    2. midway54 May 16, 2014

      Look long enough and you can compile a laundry list of things being tolerated here economically, politically, and socially much of it based on the gospel of freedom,,, from governmental interference that is. The mantra is that all citizens should have the unfettered liberty and freedom to fend for themselves despite severe and desperate circumstances in which they find themselves through no fault of their own.

    3. johninPCFL May 16, 2014

      I can remember in the 1960s and early 1970s that the tobacco farms were a source of summer money for teens all over the south. Many friends spent a summer harvesting. ONE summer. They never went back.

    4. RobertCHastings May 16, 2014

      The first child abuse case filed in the US was in the early 1900s, by the ASPCA.

  2. sigrid28 May 16, 2014

    Easy to be chirpy and upbeat about representing children–or sanctimonious; hard to follow through day-by-day, year-by-year during the twenty years when their needs are supposed to trump ours, their parents and the “village” it takes to raise them. As a parent and a teacher, I’ve given this a lot of thought. Why do we settle so easily for substandard schools and family services that fail almost as often as they succeed? I think it is because children are associated with women–mothers and traditionally teachers, both groups whose rights are always under attack. Perhaps it all boils down to the lack of a lobby to defend women and children effectively in Washington, D.C. or the lack of a hashtag. Even the media usually look the other way. The good mothers and teachers are too busy taking care of children to lobby for them as well, I guess. Someone else was involved here. I just cannot remember who?

  3. latebloomingrandma May 16, 2014

    Surely there is a middle ground here somewhere. If any laws or regulations are forthcoming, they should not be either-or. Children growing up on farms always have “chores.” But there is a huge difference between gathering the eggs in the chicken coop or working summers in the farmer’s market. Toiling in the fields among insecticides or running dangerous farm machinery does not even come close. If only people (also known as corporations) would use common sense and not EXPLOIT others, in this case children, we wouldn’t have to worry so much about those “job-killing, pesky regulations.”

  4. Mark Forsyth May 16, 2014

    Now might be a good time to resurrect Murrow’s Harvest of Shame documentary and include some critical up-dates. I also think that it is long overdue to expose a big player in this game who silently profits from the misery. I once worked in Franklin,Virginia for a company called Southern States Farm Supply Co-op.They are,or at least were,headquartered in Richmond, Virginia.I was employed by Southern States from 1991 to 1994 as a truck driver/warehouseman.I transported feed,seed,fuel,ferilizer, and agricultural chemicals including herbicides,defoliants,insecticides,pesticides and soil fumigants.Some of the chemicals such as Dursban and Lorsban have been removed from the market due to their extreme toxicity to the nervous system and the ease of contamination from breathing the chemical dust and skin absorption.In addition to these chemicals,Southern States is also a purveyor of some of the most dangerous ag-chemicals in the Monsanto product line.Similarly,they have long touted and promoted the use of medicated livestock feed laced with antibiotics and growth hormones that enables a swine producer to raise a piglet to market size[250 lbs.] in six months or less.This is the swine that is being trucked on a weekly basis to the packing houses located in Smithfield,Virginia on the Pagan River.Brands such as Smithfield,Gwaltney,Oscar Mayer,and Luters are all located there.
    During the late eighties and early nineties there was a resurgence in cotton and tobacco production in southside Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.To this day,neither crop would be viable without the widespread use of migrant farm workers and the farmers themselves have long been convinced[with the help of companies like Southern States]that it is impossible to produce a crop whether it be cotton,tobacco,corn,peanuts,or soybeans,without the use of these poisonous chemicals.
    Not until the early nineties did Southern States corporate officers see fit to change the corporate logo from the blatant Nazi SS design,to one that is mildly less offensive.To be sure,the farming culture runs deep in America and its history.Sadly,it is not all as green and healthy as we would wish.

  5. tdm3624 May 16, 2014

    They’re just immigrant kids, who cares? (sarcasm)

  6. herchato May 16, 2014

    Corporations are people and people like children.

    1. Allan Richardson May 17, 2014

      Corporations, it seems, like children in several ways: fried, grilled, barbecued, SMOKED, etc.

  7. RobertCHastings May 16, 2014

    Edward R. Murrow spent much time during his broadcasts with a lit cigarette in his mouth – he died of lung cancer. Peter Jennings, who spearheaded the broadcast assault on Tobacco that eventually resulted in that HUGE fine and trust fund, was also a longtime smoker and also died of lung cancer. Harvesting this tainted crop is not only dangerous for the children who are doing it, but for those of us who were stupid enough to get hooked on it. I don’t have cancer (yet), although I was a two-packs a day smoker for 35 years and quit 15 years ago (Jennings quit almost twenty years before he died). This shit should not be harvested, much less produced and marketed.

    1. Independent1 May 16, 2014

      Personally, I think tobacco companies should have long sense been outlawed and those running them should have been thrown in jail for knowingly operating a company that produces a product which has been proven to kill people. How are tobacco producing companies any different than say a company that knowingly produced a beverage (similar to coke, say) which was laced with very small amounts of arsenic? If such a company existed and people started dying over time from ingesting the arsenic (which is similar to nicotine), there would be a public outcry and the company would be shut down and the owners jailed. Why do we tolerate tobacco companies when we know full well what they are producing causes premature death to millions of people?? Not to mention the misery and illness to those harvesting the ingredients of the instruments of death.

      1. stcroixcarp May 17, 2014

        They could convert their cropland into growing marijuana.

        1. Independent1 May 17, 2014

          Yeah! Or corn maybe to make more Ethanol.

          I haven’t really got involved much in the discussions on legalizing marijuana, that was not something folks did when I was growing up. But from at least one standpoint, I’m not certain that legalizing pot is the best thing – from the standpoint of pot smokers causing more auto accidents just like people already do when they drive after drinking. I’m going to be surprised if we don’t start reading stories about increased auto accidents caused by folks high on pot.

          I’ve read articles that say smoking pot reduces peoples’ reaction times just like liquor does. And I’m not aware that the states that have made smoking pot legal have also set laws prohibiting folks from driving while they’re smoking it even though driving while smoking pot is not very different than driving while intoxicated. Hopefully I’m wrong, but I think it’s just a matter of time before we see statistics on accidents caused by pot smokers.

          1. Allan Richardson May 17, 2014

            There may not be enough cases to get hard numbers yet, but two factors would argue against marijuana causing as many accidents as alcohol: first, alcohol causes (or rather, fails to inhibit) aggressive and competitive behavior, which causes more accidents than passive causes such as slow reaction time (unless you are blaming the slow reaction time of the innocent driver who didn’t AVOID the reckless idiot’s unexpected move), while marijuana induces a more mellow and tolerant attitude; and second, marijuana makes its users more AWARE of the decline in their reactions and prompts them to drive more cautiously (the fabled “paranoia,” which may or may not go away in the event of legalization) to compensate, while alcohol makes them believe they are BETTER, not worse, drivers when drunk.

      2. RobertCHastings May 17, 2014

        You raise the question posed by Peter Jennings in his expose of Tobacco, and partially dealt with through the Courts and their finding in the suits against Tobacco. However, this question was only partially dealt with. Tobacco was heavily fined, especially by the standards of what we see today in relation to the GM and Toyota fines, and the trusts established through these fines are STILL being used for education. However, as you so blatantly demonstrate, if the shit is so bad, why is it still on the market? Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and, to some extent, most of the other Southern states, would face severe economic displacement were the tobacco industry to be eradicated in one fell swoop. As the representatives in Congress from tobacco-producing areas receive a large portion of their campaign funds from Tobacco, there is no political will to end Tobacco’s reign and cease the domestic production of tobacco products. The canard used by the gun industry that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is much the same as that used by Tobacco. Unfortunately for Tobacco, it didn’t work for them, but it is working for the gun industry. Virtually ALL consumer products should be subject to the same oversight that brought about the heavy penalties inflicted on the asbestos industry and Tobacco. As long as there is a too great influence of corporate money in our politics, this is not very likely to happen.

  8. ps0rjl May 16, 2014

    They always trot out the mantra of the family farm when the big agribusinesses are attacked, but the truth is most of these are large agribusiness farms that are far removed from the family farm. Also companies like the American Farm Bureau are supporters of these .

  9. charleo1 May 17, 2014

    Although it wasn’t addressed in the article. What could the Obama Adm.
    be thinking? What would motivate the President to promise his Adm. “would
    not pursue the child labor regulations,” for the duration of his Presidency? It
    seems incongruous with much of how we like to think about Obama. So
    what gives? Tip O’neil, the long serving Speaker of the House from MA. used
    to say, “All politics are local.” So, what’s going on in N.Carolina? Other than

    the T-Party has overrun the State Govt. And Sen. Kay Hagen (D NC,) is in
    a huge fight to hang on to her Seat. And help defeat a radical GOP intent on
    taking charge of the Senate, come this January. And then, for all intents and purposes, lame ducking the last 2 years of Obama’s Presidency. And, we can expect impeachment proceedings to begin ASAP. for the second time in as many Democratic Presidents. And, as bad as Washington has gotten since
    the T-Party insurgents, we could well watch helplessly as this bunch of nuts,
    and nihilists, throws the first African American President, out of office. It’s
    the only thing that would make their world make sense at this point. So, how
    do the people of N. Carolina feel about tobacco? Much the same way the
    people of W. Virginia feel, when Obama talks about natural gas, or Texans
    when he advocates for renewable energy sources. “Like Solendra?” they’ll
    mock. (It’s not really about wasted tax dollars.) But competition for jobs,
    that drives local politics, that produces either, “Ds,” or “Rs.” It’s what makes
    politics so ultimately frustrating. And the job of President, with usually no
    good options, or answers. Just the least poor choices available.

    1. Allan Richardson May 17, 2014

      Unfortunately, the fear that he and his party may be voted out by the manipulation of voters’ emotions and irrational thinking, thus losing ANY chance to remedy this and other serious problems, may be the reason that only “baby steps” like Obamacare (for which we ought to be thankful), rather than big steps like a public option, can be taken. The best we can hope for is that impatience with the results of the obstruction, combined with AWARENESS that the obstruction, not the proposed solutions of the President, is causing the problems, will give the next Democratic President a Democratic majority with which to govern.

      1. charleo1 May 18, 2014

        That’s the tightrope Obama is walking. I think the author
        here, which is also the editor at NM, in calling on the Pres.
        and even the First Lady, to shine a light on the plight of
        these children, is praiseworthy. But unless I missed it, didn’t call on the people, Governor, and Legislature of NC, to stop the exploitation of these children. An excellent example of a President making the correct call, and running into a buzz saw because of it, is W.Virginia. Where Obama’s approval numbers are as low as anywhere in the Country. Because the price of coal has bottomed out, and they blame him, his belief in Climate Change, and all the regulation they think he’s imposed on coal. It’s actually natural gas, and the free market. But, it’s their perceptions they will carry into the voter’s booth, to reelect Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, or his Republican opponent, that counts. And as we know, it’s all about the Senate, and holding on to the governors that came in on the T-Party wave of 2010. So big tobacco
        in N. Carolina is as cultural in the minds of people there, as
        coal is in W.Virginia, as bourbon is in Tennessee. He sends
        a troop of INS agents down to NC, and imposes fines on
        those tobacco operations, it’s going to look to the people
        there, like he’s just singled them out. And that will be another seat in the Senate, the Dems can kiss goodbye.

  10. Matt D. May 17, 2014

    Where new ways of doing things are prohibited, we reach a point where our current knowledge shackles us to the known ways of today.

  11. Rodrigo Dorfman May 20, 2014


  12. Martin Mcleod August 10, 2015

    I was raised on a tobacco farm and currently farm tobacco, soybeans, wheat, rapeseed, and produce. I started working when i was five years old on our farm and wouldn’t trade it for nothing. It taught me hard work ethic something none of the kids today have much less the young adults. The media blows this child labor crap out of proportion. All of our workers come to the us legally from mexico on a work visa and send there hard earned money back to their family’s. The reason we hire labor from mexico is because there is no local workers who are willing to work long hard hour and do the type of work i was raised up doing. Lets face it america today is not connected to the farm except the few who are still in farming. Lets face it kids didn’t carry on the family farm because they couldn’t do the work plain and simple.
    Back to tobacco how do you think this country funded itself early on? We traded tobacco with the old world. Jamestown was a tobacco producing colony. Why don’t you people harp on McDonalds which probably KILLS more people daily than tobacco ever will.
    Being raised on a tobacco farm made me the person i am today and i am proud of who I am.


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