Child labour on tobacco farms

An 18-year-old tobacco worker who started working in tobacco farming when he was 15. “We leave here at 5 a.m. and get there at 6 a.m. We get back at 6 or 7 p.m.,” he said. “I usually don’t eat until 10 or 11 [a.m.], and the smell [of the tobacco] and an empty stomach, you can’t hold it in. You vomit. It happened to me a couple days ago.” © 2015 Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch

The UN’s fourth Sustainable Development Goal is to “ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.” [1] However, child tobacco workers are regularly denied opportunities to pursue their education. In the US and Kazakhstan, farms contracted by both British American Tobacco (BAT) and Philip Morris International (PMI) have used child labour.

In 2009, Human Rights Watch documented the exploitation of 68 migrant workers on tobacco farms in Kazakhstan which supplied tobacco to PMI. They described horrific examples of worker abuse in which “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.” [2]

The children that worked with their families on these farms often missed school. This was due to both the expectations of parents that their children should join them, as well as the discrimination migrant children faced in accessing local schools.

In July 2015, Human Rights Watch interviewed 33 children aged 13 to 17 who had worked on tobacco farms in North Carolina, USA. [3] Most suffered from suspected acute nicotine poisoning, also called green tobacco sickness.

Though work during school hours is prohibited in the US, there is no cap on hours spent employed in agriculture once school is over. Children as young as 12 can work an unlimited number of hours on a farm with parental permission, and at 14 no longer need such consent. The lack of an hourly cap on a child’s farm work effects school performance and time dedicated to studies. While this is due in part to a failing of national policy, it is the responsibility of tobacco companies to ensure their products aren’t being sourced from properties which use child labour.

Baldemar Velasquez, President of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), has attended BAT’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) for the past 7 years. He stated in the FLOC press release on the day of the AGM that “[f]rom Indonesia to Bangladesh to North Carolina, these human rights violations will continue until BAT agrees to guarantee freedom of association and implement a practical mechanism that allows farmworkers to denounce abuses and act as their own auditors.” [4]

Just days ago, Human Rights Watch published an open letter asking BAT shareholders to press the company to “strengthen its processes for identifying and addressing human rights risks in its global supply chain.” [5]

As long as children are employed on tobacco farms, quality education for all can never be fully realized. Despite pledges from BAT and PMI to eliminate child labour, they simultaneously maintain that due to the “opaque supply chain” it is impossible to exclude tobacco farmed by children from their products. [6]

A child’s right to education must be prioritized over tobacco profit. We need to put continued pressure on BAT and PMI to ensure child labour on tobacco farms is eliminated.

Here’s how you can #ActOnTobacco:

  • Contact BAT and PMI directly and ask how they intend to eliminate child labour from its supply chains. The companies must conduct internal and third-party monitoring and publish their assessment and results.
  • BAT Contact Info: Email BAT’s press office here, send a tweet to @BATPress with the hashtag #ActOnTobacco, and phone its offices at 020 7845 1000. If you’re outside the UK you can find a list of country specific contacts here.
  • PMI Contact Info: Email PMI’s press office here, send a tweet to @InsidePMI with the hashtag #ActOnTobacco, and phone its offices at 020 7076 6000.

References:

[1] United Nations. Sustainable development goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. [Accessed April 2017]

[2] Human Rights Watch. Hellish work: Exploitation of migrant tobacco workers in Kazakhstan. 14 July 2010.

[3] Human Rights Watch. Tobacco’s hidden children: Hazardous child labour in United States tobacco farming. May 2014.

[4] Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Press release 26 April 2017.

[5] Human Rights Watch. UK: Tobacco giant should respect human rights. Public 25 April 2017.

[6] Becker J. Children should not be suffering on tobacco farms in the 21st century. The Independent. 26 May 2016.