Party-Line Vote Protects Child Labor at Tobacco Farms in Virginia

Republican-led House panel kills effort to craft new protections for kids in unrecorded vote.

In an unrecorded party-line vote, House Republicans killed a bill Tuesday evening that would have cracked down on child labor at tobacco farms in Virginia. Two Democrats on the panel voted against killing the bill, although they were unable to persuade the Republican majority on a House Commerce and Labor subcommittee that children should not work with toxic chemicals on farms that grow a substance packaged with a warming from the surgeon general.

“If this was your kid, would you be OK with having them work in this job?” asked Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49). "Would you? I don’t think you would. So why is it OK for kids you don’t know to do this job?”

Republicans answered that question with silence. None of them responded when Lopez made the issue personal, although the Arlington delegate explained that the issue is very personal for the 141 kids interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2014. Those interviews led to a report titled “Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in US Tobacco Farming.” That report led to some startling conclusions, none of which have been able to move Republicans in the General Assembly so far.

"Child tobacco workers in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia often experienced nausea and vomiting while cutting stalks of burley tobacco during the harvest,” the report noted. “Jacob S., a 14-year-old tobacco worker in Virginia, described similar symptoms. 'I get a little bit queasy, and I get lightheaded and dizzy. Sometimes I feel like I might pass out. It just feels like I want to fall over.’”

LAWMAKERS IN VIRGINIA were not persuaded by the story of Jacob S. In fact, they didn’t even want to hear Lopez explain his reasons for introducing his bill. As he was laying out his case, Republicans stopped him and asked him not to continue. This bill had already failed before, they said, so why should they give him an opportunity to make his case again?

“Delegate Lopez was very passionate and very articulate on this issue last year, and I believe this is pretty much the same testimony,” said Del. Jackson Miller (R-50). "And I’m just curious if there was new things you could bring? Because I’m sure everybody was here from last year on this committee.”

Yes, responded, Lopez. Since the two previous times he has introduced similar legislation, two of the biggest tobacco producers in the world — including Virginia-based Altria — have adopted child labor standards that are more protective than U.S. law. Nevertheless, Lopez warned, some children will fall through the cracks.

“Prohibit the hiring of children under the age of 18 to work in direct contact with tobacco plants or dried tobacco leaves,” said Lopez. "This establishes a clear standard that is easy for growers to follow and protective of all Virginia children currently working on Virginia farms.”

Republicans on the panel were not convinced. Instead, they were persuaded by the agribusiness industry, which argued that children who grow tobacco don’t deserve any special protections.

“We believe that setting out one Virginia commodity outside of every other when farming is inherently a practice we want to encourage people to get into,” said Katie Frazier, president of the Virginia Agribusiness Council. “Singling out tobacco as one specific commodity that would be dangerous for children under the age of 18 to work in is concerning to us and therefore we would ask you to oppose the measure.”

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