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 backbreaking 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, eat or even 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 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 recently spent almost $3 million 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Why does the U.S. government still permit this outdated outrage?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 seat belts 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.
Joe Conason is a nationally syndicated columnist.