An 8-year-old girl sorts and bundles tobacco leaves by hand near Sampang, East Java.

© 2015 Marcus Bleasdale for Human Rights Watch

(London) – British American Tobacco (BAT) should strengthen its processes for identifying and addressing human rights risks in its global supply chain, Human Rights Watch and Swedwatch said today in an open letter to shareholders. At the company’s annual shareholder meeting on April 26, 2017, shareholders will have an opportunity to press the company to take action and to increase the transparency of its efforts.

Human Rights Watch and Swedwatch described the human rights concerns they identified in their research on farms supplying BAT in Indonesia and Bangladesh, respectively. Human Rights Watch has documented child labor and other human rights abuses in tobacco farming in several countries, and since 2014 has urged the largest global tobacco companies, including BAT, to improve human rights protections and monitoring in their supply chains.

“The global tobacco supply chain has serious risks of human rights abuses including child labor, as well as health and safety risks,” said Jane Buchanan, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Shareholders can press BAT to do a better job identifying and addressing human rights abuses to ensure that the company’s profits don’t come at the expense of vulnerable workers.”

In a May 2016 report, Human Rights Watch found that thousands of children in Indonesia, some as young as 8, are exposed to serious hazards while working on tobacco farms, including some that supply BAT. Many child workers mixed or sprayed toxic pesticides and many suffered nausea, vomiting, or other symptoms consistent with nicotine poisoning, a result of absorbing nicotine through their skin.

Human Rights Watch had previously documented hazardous child labor on tobacco farms in the United States, including in areas where a BAT supplier, Reynolds American, was purchasing tobacco leaf. Human Rights Watch has urged BAT and other tobacco companies to prohibit children from all work involving direct contact with tobacco.

The Stockholm-based Swedwatch, in a June 2016 report, found widespread and hazardous child labor, health problems suffered by families involved in tobacco production, and other serious human rights problems in Bangladesh. Interviewees told Swedwatch that children’s work on tobacco farms interfered with their education.

In describing how the company responded to the two reports, BAT Chief Executive Nicandro Durante said, in a March 2017 sustainability report: “We conduct detailed investigations, take appropriate action to address any issues identified, and report transparently on the progress and outcomes.”

The groups raised concerns about the rigor and credibility of BAT’s monitoring practices, and its transparency in publishing details about supply chain audits.

International human rights norms like the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights state that companies are responsible for identifying and addressing human rights abuses in their global supply chains, and reporting publicly on their efforts.

“Without transparency, human rights abuses go undetected and are not remedied,” said Alice Blondel, director of Swedwatch. “BAT should carry out rigorous internal and third-party monitoring and publish details on the content of the assessments and results.”