Delegate Lopez Works to Ban Child Labor on Virginia Tobacco Farms

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February 3, 2015


Contact: Jason Stanford, 804-698-1049,

Delegate Lopez Works to Ban Child Labor on Virginia Tobacco Farms

RICHMOND – Today, Delegate Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington) called on the members of the House Commerce and Labor Committee to pass legislation (HB1906) banning the use of child labor on Virginia tobacco farms. 

“Young children should not be working in direct contact with tobacco. They are especially vulnerable to nicotine poisoning due to their size and stage of development. Indeed, a recent report from the surgeon general suggests that nicotine exposure during adolescence may have lasting negative consequences,” said Delegate Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington). “Human Rights Watch has done some extraordinary work to shine a light on the plight of these children. Now the General Assembly needs to take action and protect these kids.” 

Delegate Lopez was joined by Zama Coursen-Neff of Human Rights Watch, Norma Flores of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, and Reid Maki, Director of Child Labor Advocacy at the Child Labor Coalition.



This past summer, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting the use of child labor on tobacco farms in the United States. Between May and October 2013, Human Rights Watch interviewed 141 children, some as young as seven, who worked on US tobacco farms in 2012 or 2013. The children worked in four states—North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia—where nearly 90 percent of tobacco grown in the US is cultivated. 

The overwhelming majority of children interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported experiencing symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning (also known as Green Tobacco Sickness). Children reported nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, dizziness, lightheadedness, headaches, and sleeplessness while working on tobacco farms.

One child, “Theo,” a 16-year-old Virginia boy, told Human Rights Watch that he felt sick to his stomach, a little dizzy, and felt like he was going to throw up while cutting down tobacco plants during a harvest.

Another child, fourteen-year-old “Jacob” also worked on tobacco farms in Virginia. He reported getting queasy, lightheaded, dizzy, and feeling like he might pass out or fall over.

Under federal law, children working in agriculture can work longer hours, at younger ages, and in more hazardous conditions than children in any other industry.

Virginia’s current laws and administrative code does not prevent children ages fourteen through seventeen from working on a tobacco farm. In addition, children under the age of fourteen are allowed to work on a tobacco farm if they have parental consent, regardless of whether or not the farm is family owned.

Many of the children working legally in tobacco would be prohibited from working in any other job; however, there is no specific restrictions regarding children working in tobacco. In contrast, other countries, such as Brazil and India, specifically prohibit children under 18-years-old from working in tobacco production.

In recent months, many companies in the tobacco industry have adopted standards that offer child workers better protection than existing labor laws. Two associations of tobacco growers — which together represent about half of all U.S. growers — adopted policies to ban hiring children under 16 to work in tobacco farming.

The two largest tobacco companies in the U.S. — including Virginia-based Altria Group — followed suit, and independently announced they will prohibit hiring children under 16 to work on farms that produce tobacco for them.

Taken together, most of the major buyers of U.S.-grown tobacco have adopted child labor standards more protective than U.S. law. But without a stronger legal and regulatory framework, some children will inevitably be left out.

These new policies apply only to farms in their own supply chains, and most companies still permit 16- and 17-year-old children to do some of the most toxic jobs, like harvesting tobacco.


Norma Flores López is the director of the Children in the Fields Campaign at AFOP and serves as the chair of the Child Labor Coalition’s Domestic Issues Committee. She has long been an active advocate for migrant farmworker children’s rights and continues to raise awareness of migrant farmworker issues across the country in her current role. Norma has also had the opportunity to testify before Congress and has appeared on national news outlets including, 60 Minutes, on issues related to child labor in agriculture. She has also been invited by international governments to consult on strategies to reduce child labor. In addition to her years of experience as an advocate, Norma has invaluable firsthand experience with farmworker issues. Growing up as a child of a migrant farmworker family from South Texas, she began working in the fields at the age of 12, where she continued working until she graduated from high school. Prior to joining at AFOP in 2009, Norma worked managing national and local clients at public relations firms. Norma holds a Master’s of Public Policy from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. She graduated from the University of Texas Pan-American in Edinburg, Texas, with a bachelor’s degree in communications and studied abroad at the Universidad de Salamanca in Spain. 

Zama Coursen-Neff is the executive director of the children's rights division of Human Rights Watch. She leads the organization’s work on children’s rights and chairs the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA). Coursen-Neff also conducts fact-finding investigations and is the author of reports and articles on a range of issues affecting children, including access to education, police violence, refugee protection, the worst forms of child labor, and discrimination against women and girls. She has published on op-ed pages in major international and US publications and speaks regularly to the media. During a sabbatical in 2006/2007, she ran a protection monitoring team for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Sri Lanka. Before joining Human Rights Watch in 1999, Coursen-Neff clerked for a US federal judge, advocated on behalf of immigrants and refugees in the US, and worked with community development and women's organizations in Honduras. She is a graduate of Davidson College and New York University School of Law.

Reid Maki is the National Consumers League’s director of child labor advocacy and the coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, a 34-member organization fighting to reduce the worst forms of child labor and to protect working children in the United States and abroad. Today, the Children in the Fields Campaign and its goal of achieving equal child-labor law protection for U.S. farmworker children is the domestic priority of the coalition. A component of this campaign is removing children from hazardous work in America’s tobacco fields. Reid has two decades of experience working on migrant farmworker issues and has conducted three field investigations of child labor in U.S. agriculture. He has also has been actively working to protect teen workers from job injuries and fatalities. His health and safety activities include producing an annual report, “The Five Most Dangerous Jobs for Teen Workers.” Reid matriculated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has a Masters degree in American History from Stanford University.


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