July 14, 2010

Summary and Key Recommendations

Every year, tens of thousands of migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan travel to the Central Asian economic powerhouse of Kazakhstan in search of employment. Thousands of these migrant workers, often together with their children, find work in tobacco farming.  Human Rights Watch research in 2009 documented abuse and exploitation of many migrant workers by tobacco farm owners who employ them for seasonal work. Tobacco farm owners in Kazakhstan contract with and supply tobacco to Philip Morris Kazakhstan (PMK), a subsidiary of Philip Morris International (PMI), one of the world’s largest tobacco companies.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 68 migrant tobacco workers in 2009 and early 2010 who were working or who had recently worked on tobacco farms in Kazakhstan. They variously told Human Rights Watch how some employers confiscated their passports, failed to provide them with written employment contracts, did not pay regular wages, cheated them of earnings, and forced them to work excessively long hours. Some employers also failed to provide migrant workers with potable water, adequate hand-washing and other sanitary facilities, or adequate living conditions.

In the worst cases, workers were subjected to forced labor, or situations analogous to forced labor, in which employers confiscated migrant workers’ passports and in some cases required them to perform other work without pay or compensation in addition to tobacco farming. Work extracted under menace of penalty and for which a person has not offered him or herself voluntarily is forced labor and is banned under both international and Kazakhstani law.

Human Rights Watch documented 72 cases of children working in tobacco farming in 2009, the youngest of whom was 10. At that time, the structure of tobacco farming, whereby workers were paid only once at the end of a season based on the volume of tobacco produced, contributes to parents relying on children to participate in the work. International and Kazakhstani law prohibits the employment of children under the age of eighteen in harmful or hazardous work; Kazakhstani law explicitly prohibits employment of children in tobacco farming. Owing to the difficulty of the work and the risks associated with the handling of tobacco leaves and exposure to pesticides, experts agree that tobacco farming is one of the worst forms of child labor, or labor from which children under 18 are categorically prohibited.

Children who worked with their families on tobacco farms typically missed several months of school each year, or even entire academic years. Although very often parents expected their children to work with them, in some cases this was because migrant children faced obstacles in accessing local schools in Kazakhstan. International law guarantees the right to primary education, including for migrant workers.

Although Kazakhstani workers employed in tobacco may face many of the same abuses documented here, Human Rights Watch is focusing on migrant workers in this report because they are particularly vulnerable to abuse. In the absence of legal residency and employment status, they are less able or willing to seek redress through government agencies or the courts. Migrant workers are also typically very poor, mostly do not speak Kazakh, and are living in remote areas, far from governmental or non-governmental services.

Under international human rights law, Kazakhstan has the obligation to protect all individuals in its territory, regardless of migration or employment status, from abuses, including by private actors. But in most cases the government of Kazakhstan has not fulfilled its obligations in its treatment of migrant workers: it has neither provided sufficient legal protections nor made existing protections effective.

International human rights treaties and other instruments pay particular attention to the duty of states to uphold equal and inalienable rights. However, the basic principle that companies also have a responsibility to respect human rights, including workers’ rights, has achieved wide international recognition, as evidenced by numerous instruments, initiatives, guidelines and declarations, as well as in case law.

In line with these principles, companies are expected to have policies and procedures in place to ensure human rights are respected and not abused, to undertake adequate due diligence to identify and effectively mitigate human rights problems, and to adequately respond in cases where problems arise.

PMK is the sole purchaser of tobacco in the Enbekshikazakh district of Almaty province, the main tobacco farming area of Kazakhstan. As a subsidiary of PMI, both PMK and PMI have responsibilities under international human rights principles and obligations under Kazakhstani law to ensure the protection of those producing tobacco to be used in PMK and PMI products.

PMI has developed a Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) policy related to various aspects of tobacco farming, including the prohibition on child and forced labor, workplace safety, and safe use of pesticides. However, on the basis of its research Human Rights Watch believes that the GAP program has not proved adequate to address the range of abuses and exploitative practices in tobacco farming in Kazakhstan documented in this report. In the course of research for this report Philip Morris International and Human Rights Watch maintained a dialogue through meetings and letters, and PMI and PMK committed to taking measures to address the abuses and exploitative practices documented by Human Rights Watch. These are outlined more fully in the relevant chapters of this report.

Migrant Workers and Tobacco Farming in Kazakhstan

Experts estimate that Kazakhstan hosts from 300,000 to one million migrant workers each year, the vast majority of whom are employed informally, due to a strict quota system and stringent and complex legal requirements for employers to hire migrant workers. Many migrants work seasonally in cotton, vegetable and tobacco farming.

Tobacco cultivation in Kazakhstan takes place almost exclusively in the agricultural Enbekshikazakh district, approximately 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. Each year, Kazakhstani landowners sign contracts directly with PMK for tobacco to be produced. Some landowners farm tobacco themselves but many hire workers, most often from Kyrgyzstan, to do some or all of the tobacco farming. Tobacco farming in Kazakhstan involves an eight to nine-month season of difficult, labor-intensive manual work. Tasks include growing tobacco plant seedlings, transplanting seedlings to fields, watering, weeding, fertilizing and applying pesticides, then harvesting the leaves by hand, stringing and hanging the leaves for curing, steaming the leaves to prepare them for packing and packing them in bales to be sold to PMK. Human Rights Watch’s research in 2009 found that these tasks were performed by both adults and children.

The landowner, sometimes accompanied by the migrant worker, delivers the bales to the PMK factory near Almaty, where a tobacco leaf expert determines the grade, or quality, of the tobacco. PMK sets a price per grade of tobacco each season and pays the Kazakhstani landowner based on the amount of tobacco of each grade. The landowner, in turn, pays the head of the migrant worker family.

Wage Violations and Induced Indebtedness

Migrant tobacco workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch did not receive any regular wages during eight to nine months of employment, in violation of Kazakhstani law. Instead, the landowner paid the head of the migrant worker family, often the male head of household, one lump sum payment at the end of the tobacco harvest. Other family members, including both children and other adults, most often women, simply “worked for the family,” and did not earn any direct payment for their work.

The single-end-of-season payment structure made migrant workers heavily dependent on the landowners. Very often, because migrant workers possessed little or no cash at the beginning of the season, the landowner provided them small advance payments or purchased directly basic necessities, such as food and medicine. The landowner deducted these expenses, as well as travel and the costs of informal intermediaries who recruit migrant workers from the final end-of-season payment. The failure to pay regular wages put workers at risk of induced indebtedness. In the event of a poor harvest, deductions for food, travel, intermediaries’ fees, and other expenses paid by the landowner may have totaled more than the total earnings received for the tobacco produced.

For example, Human Rights Watch met Ulkan U., in 2009 in Malybai, Kazakhstan, while she was working with three of her children, ages 12, 14, and 17. When the family first came in April 2007, the landowner paid an exorbitant fee to the intermediary who brought Ulkan U. and her children from Kyrgyzstan and expected her to repay this and other expenses, such as food costs, at the end of the season. After a modest harvest, Ulkan U. found herself in debt, and the employer demanded she remain another season in order to repay him. Although she repaid her debt at end of 2008, she still did not have sufficient funds to return home and worked with her children during the 2009 tobacco season as well. Her children have not attended school since 2007.

Forced Labor

In six cases documented by Human Rights Watch in 2009, migrant tobacco workers were trapped in situations which Human Rights Watch determined to be forced labor or situations analogous to forced labor, arising from the convergence of several particularly abusive practices—the payment structure, deductions from payments, and employers’ holding of passports. The end-of-season payment structure created a significant penalty for migrant workers who sought to leave an abusive situation, since leaving their employment at any time prior to the harvest would have meant forfeiting any earnings for work performed to date. In some cases of forced labor, landowners required workers to do additional work at the landowners’ farm, such as farming other crops, house cleaning, or renovation work, all without pay.

In one case, 34-year-old Umut U. worked on a tobacco farm in Malybai, Kazakhstan in 2009 with her four children, ages 10, 11, 13, and 14. She told Human Rights Watch that her employer confiscated her passport and her children’s birth certificates at the start of the tobacco farming season and returned them only after the family had completed the harvest. When Umut U. and her children weren’t farming tobacco, the employer demanded that they help him with his house cleaning, farming and weeding and harvesting of onions, without pay. In the absence of her passport and fearing forfeiture of the family’s earnings, Umut U. felt she had no choice but to comply.

Child Labor

The single end-of-season payment structure in place in 2009 and in previous seasons contributed to the use of child labor and to excessively long working hours for both children and adult workers. Migrant workers felt compelled to dedicate as much effort and as many hands as possible each day to the tobacco farming in hopes of producing the expected volume of tobacco and receiving decent earnings.

Child labor in Kazakhstan is a longstanding problem. Human Rights Watch documented 72 cases of children, ages 10-17, working, or who had previously worked, in tobacco farming in 2009. Both parents and children interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that children perform the some or all of the same labor-intensive, difficult farming work as adults.

Tobacco farming is hazardous work due to a number of factors, such as the physical difficulty of the work and repetitive motions, long working hours, exposure to high heat and sun during the summer months, and exposure to pesticides and health risks associated with the handling of tobacco plants. For children, exposure to pesticides and other health hazards are particularly acute, as immature and still-growing bodies are more vulnerable than adults’ to systemic damage. Children may work excessively long hours, have little rest, and have poor access to water, nutrition, sanitation, and hygiene.  

Human Rights Watch found that children working on tobacco farms typically missed between two to six months of the academic school year in Kyrgyzstan and did not attend school in Kazakhstan. Parents take their children out of school in March or April to travel to Kazakhstan to begin the tobacco season. Although some children returned to Kyrgyzstan in August to begin the school year, most remained with their parents until November or December to assist with the harvesting and curing of tobacco. In a few cases documented by Human Rights Watch, children missed whole school years when their families did not return to Kyrgyzstan for the winter.

Although most migrant workers expected their children to work together with them in order to fulfill the required volume of tobacco, some parents stated a desire for their children to attend local schools in Kazakhstan. However, information provided by migrant workers and the government of Kazakhstan indicates that most schools in the Enbekshikazakh district are reluctant to accept migrant children, due to parents’ lack of residency registration.

Excessively Long Hours

Migrant workers told Human Rights Watch that both adults and children worked up to 18 hours a day during the high season of tobacco farming, usually in July or August, when temperatures are also hottest in Kazakhstan. Workers had no regular weekend day or days off and very few other days off.

As an example of long hours and little rest for migrant worker children and adults in tobacco farming, Sharapat Sh., 41, who worked in Malybai with her adult son and 15-year-old daughter, told Human Rights Watch that they typically worked 11 to 13 hours a day, performing a variety of labor-intensive, manual farming tasks. For the nine months that they were working on the tobacco farm they took a total of 14 days off, including weekends. By contrast, an employee working a standard work week for nine months, or approximately 36 weeks, would get at a minimum of 72 weekend days off.

Pesticides, Fertilizers, and Living Conditions

Some migrant workers applied pesticides and fertilizers to tobacco plants. Exposure to pesticides may pose both acute and chronic health risks to those who handle and apply them and to those working on crops which have recently been treated with pesticides. Migrant tobacco workers in Kazakhstan interviewed by Human Rights Watch did not always know the names of the pesticides or fertilizers they were using or the health risks associated with them, and only one worker interviewed had received safe-handling instructions from PMK regarding pesticide and fertilizer use. These instructions, however, were not consistent with the handling, first aid, and restricted entry requirements provided on the label of one of the pesticides being used on farms producing tobacco for PMK in 2009.

Migrant workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch also had not received any information or training about other health risks associated with tobacco farming, including green tobacco sickness (GTS), which is caused by absorption of nicotine through the skin from contact with tobacco leaves, especially wet tobacco leaves, and is characterized by nausea, vomiting, headache, muscle weakness, and dizziness. Other health complications can include respiratory ailments, exposure to extreme temperatures, musculoskeletal disorders as a result of carrying of excessive and/or awkward loads, repetitive and often forceful actions, bending, stooping, and the adoption of awkward and uncomfortable postures.

Migrant workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that their employer provided free accommodation. In the absence of regular wages, this is the most viable option for migrant workers. Some migrant workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch, including whole families with small children, lived in makeshift housing of their own construction on the edge of the tobacco fields for at least five of the peak months of the tobacco farming season. These makeshift structures have little protection from the elements, and have no electricity, running water, or heat.

On all farms which Human Rights Watch visited there was no potable water available for migrant workers or other workers on the tobacco fields. Workers retrieved water from nearby streams, rivers, canals, and springs, which are often also used to irrigate the tobacco fields. Drinking dirty or contaminated water may expose workers to dangerous chemicals, including pesticides, organic wastes, and parasites. Ready access to plentiful, clean drinking water is also crucial for migrant tobacco workers, who work in full sun and high heat for many months of the year, to prevent dehydration and heat-induced illness.

Many workers reported that they did not have access to proper bathing facilities, particularly those who lived near the tobacco fields. Hand-washing and bathing facilities are important both for basic hygiene of workers and their families as well as for mitigating the effects of exposure to pesticides and nicotine in tobacco leaves.

The Kazakhstani government, Philip Morris International, and Philip Morris Kazakhstan can and should immediately implement measures to fully protect migrant tobacco workers from abuse and exploitation and prevent child labor in tobacco farming.  

Government of Kazakhstan Policy and Key Recommendations

Changes in government policy in 2009 rendered migrant tobacco workers especially vulnerable to abuse because it became impossible for them to secure regular employment status. Kazakhstan’s current migration policy prioritizes temporary labor migration, particularly of skilled workers. The government allocates an annual quota for foreign workers, including agricultural workers from Kyrgyzstan, based on a specific agreement between the two governments. Kazakhstan maintains a strict, complex, and costly permit system for employers to hire migrant workers, although the procedure is somewhat simplified for the hiring of agricultural workers from Kyrgyzstan.

In 2009, the government did not allocate any permits for employers in Almaty province to hire agricultural workers from Kyrgyzstan, citing rising unemployment in the country. This move rendered all migrant workers working in the region in 2009, including almost all migrant workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report, into irregular employment situations. Migrant workers who are in an irregular residency or informal employment situation are more vulnerable to exploitation by employers and are more reluctant to seek redress through official channels because they fear possible fines or expulsion from Kazakhstan.

The government of Kazakhstan has not taken sufficient steps to protect migrant tobacco workers from abuse. This is in part due to a belief by some Kazakhstani authorities, as stated to Human Rights Watch during official meetings, that workers with irregular status have no rights.

In response to the problem of child labor, the government has established a number of inter-agency coordinating groups tasked with addressing various issues relevant to child labor. These mechanisms have not proven sufficient to comprehensively address child labor among migrant tobacco workers.

The government of Kazakhstan should establish accessible, effective complaint mechanisms and rigorously investigate complaints of abuse made by migrant workers, irrespective of a migrant workers’ contractual status or migration status. The labor inspectorate should also rigorously enforce laws prohibiting forced labor and passport confiscation as well as those guaranteeing basic labor protections. The relevant ministries and local authorities, including the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection should ensure children of migrant workers have access to local schools and other social services and increase training for parents, children, employers, and others regarding the hazards of child labor in tobacco. The labor inspectorate should rigorously enforce laws prohibiting child labor in tobacco farming.

More detailed recommendations are set forth at the end of this report.

Philip Morris International, Philip Morris Kazakhstan and Key Recommendations

Human Rights Watch first brought to Philip Morris International (PMI) its concerns about the treatment of migrant workers on tobacco farms producing tobacco for PMK in October 2009. Since that time, PMI has met with Human Rights Watch twice to discuss concerns about the protection of migrant workers and recommendations for addressing these concerns. PMI has also responded in writing four times to Human Rights Watch’s requests for information. The correspondence between Human Rights Watch and Philip Morris International can be found in appendices to this report.

As detailed below, in response to communications with Human Rights Watch, PMI and PMK have committed to taking measures to address the abuses and exploitative practices documented in this report. At the time of the research for this report, Philip Morris Kazakhstan’s system for preventing forced labor and child labor involved PMK agronomists, specialists who advise farmers and workers on tobacco crop production, conducting regular inspections of farms. They are responsible for implementing a number of PMI policies, including those related to crop management, pesticide use, and the prohibition on child labor and forced labor. Philip Morris Kazakhstan agronomists have not been responsible for monitoring and reporting of any labor or other violations such as those documented by Human Rights Watch. In addition, at the time of Human Rights Watch’s research, there were only four agronomists responsible for monitoring the 519 farms producing tobacco for Philip Morris Kazakhstan in 2009.

In response to Human Rights Watch’s October 2009 letter, PMI and PMK executives undertook a three-day investigation in the Enbekshikazakh district of Almaty province, where, according to PMI, they visited over 30 farms that employ or have employed migrant workers and conducted interviews with members of the PMK agronomy team, representatives of schools, local authorities, as well as NGOs with whom they had worked in the past. PMI and PMK presented the findings of this investigation to Human Rights Watch and relevant findings are reflected in this report.

PMI and PMK executives stated that they did not find evidence of some of the worst abuses documented by Human Rights Watch, such as forced labor or debt bondage. However, in response to concerns raised by Human Rights Watch, PMI has stated that it will implement a number of measures to expand and strengthen its labor and other rights protection for migrant workers. These measures include strengthening the contracts PMK signs with the tobacco farm owners as well as requiring landowners to conclude contracts with each of their workers guaranteeing minimum labor standards and other conditions, consistent with Kazakhstani law. PMI also committed to expanding the training of agronomists, farmers, and workers, to include topics such as forced labor, illegal passport retention, adequate living conditions, and education for migrant worker children. Other commitments include improving the safe-handling instructions and safety of application of pesticides and fertilizers. PMI and PMK have also stated that they will engage with the Kazakhstani government, local authorities and NGOs to address the ability of children of migrant workers to attend local schools. PMI also is working with a third-party organization to conduct monitoring of its implementation of these initiatives.

Human Rights Watch welcomes these commitments and calls on PMI to ensure swift implementation and rigorous monitoring of these and other measures including through internal compliance mechanisms and through third-party monitoring.

In addition, we recommend PMI revise their global policies to ensure full respect for labor and other rights of workers engaged in producing tobacco to be used in PMI products. We urge PMI and PMK to ensure that prevention of child labor in tobacco farming remains a priority and that additional mechanisms and policies are put in place to monitor and remedy child labor. PMI and PMK should also establish accessible complaint mechanisms that ensure workers employed on farms producing tobacco for PMI and its subsidiaries can safely report abuses and will have confidence that such allegations will be immediately investigated in a fair and transparent manner. Guarantees to protect migrant workers who speak up about abuses from reprisals or retaliation by landowners are essential.

More detailed recommendations are set forth at the end of this report.