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Landmark agreement promises to end child labor in supply chains

LONDON -- Several of the world's biggest tobacco companies pledged on Dec. 10 to end child labor in their supply chains, a landmark agreement a rights group says could protect thousands of children from hazardous work in tobacco fields.

LONDON -- Several of the world's biggest tobacco companies pledged on Dec. 10 to end child labor in their supply chains, a landmark agreement a rights group says could protect thousands of children from hazardous work in tobacco fields.

Human Rights Watch says it is the first time members of the tobacco industry jointly agreed to abide by international labor law, which prohibits hazardous work by children under 18 and the employment of children under 15.

Philip Morris International, Japan Tobacco International and British American Tobacco were among the firms that signed the pledge, which was announced by the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing (ECLT) Foundation, an industry-supported initiative based in Geneva.

"The impact of the new pledge could be especially significant in the United States, which has some of the most lax labor laws in the world when it comes to children working in agriculture," says Jo Becker, HRW children's rights advocacy director.

U.S. law permits children as young as 12 to work unlimited hours outside of school on a farm of any size with parental permission, according to HRW.

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Under the pledge, ECLT member companies will need to ensure that growers in their supply chains do not employ children under 15.

HRW says some companies and growers' associations already had individual child labor policies that met or exceeded such standards, but others did not.

Becker says the pledge represents a big step in the right direction for the industry, but warns that significant gaps remained.

"Not all tobacco companies are ECLT members, so there are a few key players, such as China National [Tobacco Corp.] and Reynolds Tobacco Co., who are not part of the pledge," Becker says. "More worryingly, the pledge defers to national regulations when defining what constitutes hazardous labor, meaning that the work for those aged 15 to 18 is at the discretion of each grower or company."

In the U.S., child labor laws have no special provisions for the unique hazards of handling tobacco, leaving children at risk of nicotine poisoning, Becker says.

An HRW report in May documented hazardous child labor on tobacco farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, four states that account for 90 percent of the tobacco grown in the U.S.

Children reported vomiting, nausea, headaches and dizziness while working on tobacco farms, all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, the report found.

Many say they worked 60-hour weeks without overtime pay, often in extreme heat, without shade or sufficient breaks, and wore no, or inadequate, protective gear.

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The International Labour Organisation says it hopes the pledge would lead to greater and ever more coherent efforts to end child labor in all its forms in tobacco-growing communities worldwide.

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