- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 4, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A report about the practices of farmers who sell tobacco to R.J. Reynolds shows that several growers had children under the age of 13 working in their fields despite a pledge by the company to ban the hiring of people so young.

The report by a consulting company and released Wednesday by a pro-worker group shows that five non-family minors under the age of 13 were working in the fields at the time of the assessment. Of the five, three had the legally required parental consent, the report says.

The report did not investigate children working on farms with their families, just those working alone. The growers also knew about the assessments ahead of time.

Such assessments are important and encouraging but need to go further than this one, said Margaret Wurth, a children’s rights researcher with Human Rights Watch in New York City.

“It’s important for these kinds of assessments to be done,” Wurth said Wednesday. “But there are ways for the data to be more robust and more meaningful. It is encouraging that they’re reporting on it transparently.”

The report is posted on RJR’s website.

A report from Human Rights Watch issued in December said both Reynolds American and Altria Group, the two largest tobacco manufacturing companies in the U.S., had announced in 2014 that they would ban hiring children under 16 to work on tobacco farms.

Meanwhile, the Farmworkers Labor Organizing Committee plans a march and rally Thursday outside Reynolds American’s annual shareholders meeting in Winston-Salem.

“The presence of child labor, which the company has denied for years, confirms what the farmworkers’ union, FLOC, has been telling the company since 2007: the tobacco industry is guilty of turning a blind eye to child labor, dangerous working conditions, and many other abuses for far too long,” FLOC said in a news release.

Assessors interviewed 505 workers employed by 373 RJR-contracted growers across Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia from late June through early September 2015. The assessment was conducted for GAP Connections, a nonprofit whose website says it develops, maintains, and provides leadership for agricultural standards and practices.

The report says that 20 growers visited by assessors reported employing non-family minors. Of those 20 growers, 15 had the legally required documentation.

Of the 505 workers interviewed, five identified themselves as being 15 to 17 years old. All five worked full-time on South Carolina farms and all said they were local to the area in which they worked.

RJR spokesman John Wilson said the company’s 2015 grower contracts prohibited the employment of non-family minors below the age of 16. The company has identified two growers as having violated that policy, he said.

“Both growers received corrective action and will receive ongoing monitoring,” he said in an email. “They will also be audited again in 2016.”

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Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/martha-waggoner

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