Advocates are speaking out on behalf of child workers' health and well-being after a bill that would have regulated Virginia's tobacco farming industry failed to pass last week.
Minors would not be allowed to work directly with tobacco plants or their dried leaves, had Virginia House Bill 1906 passed, NBC 29 News reported. Children working on family farms as part of tradition would have been exempt from the law.
Proponents of the bill pointed to a report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) last May that found children who work on tobacco farms are more at risk of getting cancer, living with reproductive health issues and suffering from permanent neurological damage, among other side affects.
While the bill in Virginia failed to pass and no other state-level legislation is currently in the air, Jo Becker, advocacy director of HRW's Children's Rights Division, told The Huffington Post that "there's certainly been a lot of interest" at a national level in cracking down on child labor in the tobacco industry.
The next big step against child labor on tobacco farms will come later this year, according to Becker, when Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline (D) will reintroduce a federal bill that would prohibit children under the age of 18 from working in direct contact with tobacco.
HRW is hoping supporters urge their representatives to support the bill, which has yet to be given an official number before Congress.
HRW's report -- which interviewed 141 children, ages 7 to 17, in the tobacco producing states of Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee -- found that minors often worked with chemical spray, which caused burning eyes and noses, vomiting, dizziness, shortness of breath and swelling of their mouths.
"One of the refrains we hear from kids who do this kind of work is, when they get the tobacco sickness, they say, 'I felt like I was going to die,'" Reid Maki of the Child Labor Coalition for NCL, told NBC 29.
The report found child laborers would sometimes work 16-hour days, and some employers did not allow child workers to take regular breaks -- even when that child felt sick. Becker told HuffPost that many of these children come from poor families in farm communities who wish to contribute financially, but have few employment options.
After the HRW report was published, a number of senators wrote to 10 of the biggest tobacco companies, Becker told HuffPost, urging them to revise their child labor policies. Last summer, 35 members of Congress wrote to Department of Labor (DOL) Secretary Thomas Perez asking the DOL to take a more active role in regulating the industry.
And the pressure's paying off. Throughout the past several months, a number of large tobacco companies and associations have implemented policies that prohibit workers under 16 years of age to be employed on farms, Becker explained.
"Even the tobacco industry itself has recognized that young children don't belong in tobacco fields," she said.
Learn more and take action against child labor on tobacco farms by signing HRW's petition here.