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A young girl ties tobacco leaves onto sticks to prepare them for curing in East Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara. © 2015 Marcus Bleasdale for Human Rights Watch

(Jakarta) – Thousands of children in Indonesia, some just 8 years old, are working in hazardous conditions on tobacco farms, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Indonesian and multinational tobacco companies buy tobacco grown in Indonesia, but none do enough to ensure that children are not doing hazardous work on farms in their supply chains.

The 119-page report, “‘The Harvest is in My Blood’: Hazardous Child Labor in Tobacco Farming in Indonesia,” documents how child tobacco workers are exposed to nicotine, handle toxic chemicals, use sharp tools, lift heavy loads, and work in extreme heat. The work could have lasting consequences for their health and development. Companies should ban suppliers from using children for work that involves direct contact with tobacco, and the Indonesian government should regulate the industry to hold them accountable.

“Tobacco companies are making money off the backs and the health of Indonesian child workers,” said Margaret Wurth, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “Tobacco companies shouldn’t contribute to the use of hazardous child labor through their supply chains.”

Indonesia is the world’s fifth-largest tobacco producer, with more than 500,000 tobacco farms. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that more than 1.5 million children, ages 10 to 17, work in agriculture in Indonesia. Human Rights Watch could not find any official estimates of the number of children working in tobacco farming.

Human Rights Watch conducted field research for the report in four Indonesian provinces, including the three responsible for almost 90 percent of the country’s annual tobacco production: East Java, Central Java, and West Nusa Tenggara. The report is based on interviews with 227 people, including 132 child tobacco workers, ages 8 to 17. Most started working by age 12 throughout the growing season on small plots of land farmed by their families or neighbors.

Half the children interviewed reported nausea, vomiting, headaches, or dizziness, all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning from absorbing nicotine through their skin. The long-term effects have not been studied, but research on smoking suggests that nicotine exposure during childhood and adolescence may affect brain development.

Thirteen-year-old “Ayu” said she vomits every year while harvesting tobacco on farms in her village near Garut, West Java: “I was throwing up when I was so tired from harvesting and carrying the [tobacco] leaf. I threw up so many times.”

Many child tobacco workers said they mixed and applied pesticides and other chemicals. Pesticide exposure has been associated with long-term and chronic health effects, including respiratory problems, cancer, depression, neurologic deficits, and reproductive health problems. “Argo,” a 15-year-old worker in Pamekasan, East Java, said he felt suddenly ill when applying a pesticide to his family’s farm: “Once I was vomiting. It was when it was planting time, and I didn’t use the mask, and the smell was so strong, I started throwing up.” Some children were also exposed to pesticides when other workers applied chemicals in the fields where they were working, or in nearby fields.

Few of the children interviewed, or their parents, understood the health risks or were trained on safety measures. The Indonesian government should carry out a massive education campaign to promote awareness of the health risks to children of work in tobacco farming, Human Rights Watch said.

Most of the children interviewed worked outside of school hours, but Human Rights Watch found that work in tobacco farming interfered with schooling for some children. “Sari,” 14, from Magelang, Central Java, said she dreamed of becoming a nurse, but she stopped attending school after sixth grade to help support her family.

The largest companies operating in Indonesia include three Indonesian tobacco product manufacturers – PT Djarum, PT Gudang Garam Tbk, and PT Nojorono Tobacco International – and two companies owned by multinational tobacco companies – PT Bentoel Internasional Investama, owned by British American Tobacco, and PT Hanjaya Mandala Sampoerna Tbk, owned by Philip Morris International. Other Indonesian and multinational companies also purchase tobacco grown in Indonesia.

Human Rights Watch shared its findings with 13 companies, and 10 responded. None of the four Indonesian companies provided a detailed or comprehensive response, and the largest two, Djarum and Gudang Garam, did not respond despite repeated attempts to reach them.

Since 2013, Human Rights Watch has met and corresponded with representatives of several multinational tobacco companies regarding their child labor policies and practices. Human Rights Watch previously documented work by children on United States tobacco farms, and urged tobacco companies to take concrete steps to eliminate hazardous child labor in their supply chains globally. Some have adopted new protections for child workers, but none have policies sufficient to ensure that all children in their supply chains are protected.

Under human rights norms, tobacco companies have a responsibility to ensure that the tobacco they purchase was not produced with hazardous child labor, Human Rights Watch said.

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Most tobacco in Indonesia is bought and sold on the open market through traders and intermediaries, with the tobacco often passing through many hands before purchase by national or multinational companies. However, some farmers are under contract with individual companies.

The multinational companies that responded to Human Rights Watch prioritize direct contracting in their supply chains. Yet all also purchase tobacco on the open market, and none trace where open market tobacco was produced, and under what conditions.

Human Rights Watch could not find any evidence that the Indonesian companies take steps to prevent child labor in their supply chains, and they did not correspond in detail or meet with Human Rights Watch.

“When tobacco companies don’t even know where the tobacco they purchase has come from, there’s no way they can ensure children haven’t put their health at risk to produce it,” Wurth said.

Under Indonesian law, 15 is the minimum age for work, and children ages 13 to 15 may only do light work that does not interfere with their schooling or harm their health and safety. Children under 18 are prohibited from doing hazardous work, including in environments with harmful chemical substances. Any work involving direct contact with tobacco should be considered prohibited under this provision, due to the risk of nicotine exposure, Human Rights Watch said.

Indonesia has come under international scrutiny for failing to protect children from the dangers of smoking. Though Indonesian law prohibits the sale of tobacco products to children, nearly 4 million children, ages 10 to 14, become smokers each year, and at least 239,000 children under 10 have started smoking. More than 40 million Indonesian children under 15 are exposed to secondhand smoke.

Indonesia is one of only a few countries that has not signed or ratified the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a global public health treaty aimed at protecting the population from the consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke. Indonesia should sign and ratify the treaty without delay, Human Rights Watch said.

“The government should do much more to protect children from the dangers of tobacco consumption,” Wurth said. “But Indonesia’s child tobacco workers are hidden victims, and they urgently need protection too.”

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