An 11-year-old girl ties tobacco leaves onto sticks to prepare them for curing in East Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara.

© 2015 Marcus Bleasdale for Human Rights Watch

 

Many of the world’s most popular brands of cigarettes may contain tobacco produced by vulnerable child workers. Over the last five years, we have investigated labor conditions and human rights problems on tobacco farms in four of the world’s top 10 tobacco-producing countries. We found that children work in hazardous conditions on farms supplying some of the world’s largest multinational tobacco companies.

In the United States, the world’s fourth-largest tobacco producer, weak labor laws and regulations allow the hiring of children as young as 12 to work unlimited hours on farms of any size – including in tobacco fields – as long as they don’t miss school. Child workers told us about working 12-hour days in extreme heat, topping or harvesting tobacco plants.

Many of them complained of suffering nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness while they worked – all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, or green tobacco sickness, from nicotine being absorbed through the skin while handling tobacco. “It felt like there was something in my head trying to eat it,” one 12-year-old worker said, describing the headaches he got while he worked.

Indonesia, the fifth-largest tobacco producer globally, has more than half a million tobacco farms. Most are small, family-run plots, and we found that children often work alongside their parents and neighbors, harvesting and carrying tobacco leaves and preparing them for curing. Many complained that they had the same symptoms. “I threw up so many times,” said one 13-year-old worker.

Most recently, in Zimbabwe, the sixth-largest tobacco producer, we found that both child and adult workers faced serious health risks and labor abuses on tobacco farms. Tobacco is the country’s most valuable export commodity and a pillar of a troubled economy. But we found that some child workers sacrificed their health and education to work on tobacco farms. Though nearly everyone we interviewed had experienced symptoms of nicotine poisoning, almost no one had ever heard of it or knew how to protect themselves. The firms insist they do give training.

The world’s largest multinational tobacco product manufacturers, including the UK giants British American Tobacco (maker of Lucky Strike, Camel, and Dunhill) and Imperial Brands (maker of Davidoff and Gauloises Blondes), source from these and other tobacco-growing countries.

The firms say that they are doing everything they can to end exploitative child labor, stop abuses in their supply chains and have policies to safeguard workers.

 

Human Rights Watch has been in regular contact with many tobacco companies since we started this work. Several companies have adopted new policies or strengthened existing polices to prohibit suppliers from allowing children to do dangerous tasks on farms. But no company prohibits those under 18 from all work involving direct contact with tobacco in any form – the policy that would offer the greatest protection, in line with international standards.
 
Most companies maintain that their policies are carried out throughout global supply chains, but we believe many do not report transparently about their monitoring and what they find. Without this information, we have to take their word for it that they’re doing enough to address rights abuses in their supply chains. Companies should provide credible, transparent information on human rights problems and steps they take to fix them.
 
Our research, new reporting in the Guardian, and reports by researchers and nongovernmental organizations including Swedwatch and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (Floc) suggest that hazardous child labor, labor rights abuses, and other serious human rights problems persist in these companies’ global supply chains.
 
But Brazil, the world’s second-largest tobacco producer, provides a positive example for tackling hazardous child labor. Brazil barred children under 18 from any work with tobacco in 2008 and established penalties for child labor violations – not just for farmers, but for the companies purchasing their leaf. Though the labor ministry was understaffed and lacked the resources to carry out sufficient inspections, the farmers we interviewed understood that children were not permitted to work and feared the penalties.
 
The government also provided extensive information to tobacco farmers about the hazards of nicotine and pesticide exposure, particularly for children. Unlike in Zimbabwe, the small-scale farmers in Brazil were informed about the health risks and knew their children shouldn’t be working in the fields.

Child labor has not been completely eliminated in Brazil, but there has been progress in keeping children out of hazardous work and protecting adult workers.

The contrast between what we found in Brazil, as compared with the US, Indonesia, and Zimbabwe, is striking and suggests that when governments regulate the industry and hold companies accountable, progress can be made. Many of the same companies purchase from all of these markets. The Brazil example shows that strong laws and regulations can help companies take action to reduce child labor and human rights problems.

The incremental changes we’ve seen are encouraging, but it’s hard to keep hearing the same stories of sickness and suffering by child workers on tobacco farms year after year. By next month, the tobacco growing season will be under way in Indonesia and the United States, and in a few months, farmers in Zimbabwe will begin planting next year’s crop. Brazil points to a way forward.

Governments should enact strict regulations and provide extensive health information and training to protect tobacco workers from harm. Tobacco companies should explicitly prohibit children from contact with tobacco in any form, carry out regular and rigorous human rights monitoring in the supply chain, and report transparently on their efforts. The health and wellbeing of child workers all over the world hangs in the balance.

Margaret Wurth and Jane Buchanan are children’s rights experts at Human Rights Watch.