A report that cigarette maker Philip Morris International bought tobacco from farms in Kazakhstan that used forced and child labor has prompted it to change its policies.
The world’s largest nongovernment cigarette seller said on Wednesday that it took immediate action following the Human Rights Watch report based on interviews with 68 farm workers last year and early this year.
All the workers, including the children, were migrant laborers from neighboring Central Asian countries, mostly from impoverished Kyrgyzstan. The report also documented violations of basic farm safety rules, like laborers wearing open-toed shoes while working with sharp hoes.
The report, also released on Wednesday, raised serious concerns over child labor and conditions of migrant workers on tobacco farms in its supply chain.
According to the report, farmers took away workers’ passports, didn’t pay them regular wages, and forced them to work long hours without clean drinking water or other sanitary facilities. Human Rights Watch also said it documented cases of children as young as 10 working on the farms.
“Many of these tobacco workers — adults and children alike — came to Kazakhstan and found themselves in virtual bondage,” Jane Buchanan, a senior researcher with the group, said in a news release.
She said Kazakhstan’s government needs to do more to protect workers and Philip Morris International has to play a key role in preventing abuses in its supply chain.
One woman told Human Rights Watch children as young as 10 working in the fields developed red rashes on their stomachs and necks as they harvested tobacco for use in cigarettes made by Philip Morris.
While child labor should be condemned in any setting, the Human Rights Watch report said, employing children on tobacco farms is particularly hazardous because tobacco field laborers are exposed to high levels of nicotine while doing their jobs.
Only a tiny fraction of Philip Morris’ global tobacco purchases are made in the country, and no tobacco raised on the farms employing child labor went into cigarettes sold outside of former Soviet countries. Philip Morris, after being provided with an advance copy of the report, said it agreed to sweeping changes in its purchasing policies in Kazakhstan.
“No one should work in unsafe or unlawful conditions,” the company said in a statement.
The seller of Marlboro and other brands overseas said it has strengthened contracts with farmers to prohibit certain labor practices and set standards for workers. It also said it is going to use third-party monitoring of farms.
“Philip Morris International is firmly opposed to child labor,” spokesman Peter Nixon said by telephone from the company’s office in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Although child labor is widespread in agriculture in Central Asia, Human Rights Watch said, the particularly harmful environment on the Kazakh tobacco farms warranted special attention. The report cited conditions it said were dangerous to children and adults alike. Lacking easy access to potable water, for example, laborers had resorted to drinking from irrigation channels contaminated with pesticides, the report said.
Human Rights Watch researchers documented 72 instances of children working in the Kazakh tobacco fields, which employ about 1,000 migrants each season.
Many are paid on a piecework basis, by the tonne of harvested tobacco. The group said this was an inducement for parents to bring their children into the fields at harvest time. Even then, the report said, families made only a few hundred dollars for a half-year of farm work, after covering debts to farmers for board and travel.
“A company like Philip Morris certainly has the resources to put an end to these practices,” Buchanan said in an interview.
The farmers studied by Human Rights Watch supply Philip Morris Kazakhstan, a wholly owned subsidiary of Philip Morris International, which is based in New York. The Kazakh tobacco is used only in local brands unknown outside their markets in former Soviet countries, including Polyot and Apollo-Soyuz.
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