Tue, Jun 26, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Child labor rampant in tobacco industry: report

The Guardian, KASUNGU, Malawi

Child labor in tobacco is rampant and on the increase in poorer countries, a major Guardian investigation can reveal, in spite of claims by multibillion-dollar companies that they are tackling the issue.

Evidence from three continents shows how children aged 14 and under are kept out of school and employed in difficult and sometimes harmful physical labor to produce the tobacco leaf that fills cigarettes sold internationally, including in the UK, the US and mainland Europe.

Families are trapped in generational poverty, while salaries at the top of the industry run to millions of dollars a year.

The companies say they monitor child labor and remove children from the fields to go to school, but experts have told the Guardian that the numbers are going up, not down, as tobacco growing increases in Africa and Asia.

The consequences for children are life-long.

“I wanted to be a nurse,” said one 14-year-old girl in Malawi, who spends her days weeding under a hot sun with a heavy hoe.

Families see no option but to use their children in the fields as unpaid labor. Many are in debt to landowners and landlords and have to stay on from one season to the next, unable to break the cycle of deprivation.

“No effective actions have been taken to reverse this scenario,” said Vera da Costa e Silva, head of the secretariat of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a key body tackling an industry that kills more than 7 million people a year.

“What happens is that tobacco farming gives its profits to the industry, but gives very low incomes to the tobacco growers themselves,” Da Costa e Silva said.

The tobacco firms say they are doing everything that they can to end exploitative child labor.

However, it is a scandal for which the multinational companies have a direct responsibility, she said.

“There is a double burden — the burden of child labor itself and the burden of working on a deadly product that ultimately affect the children themselves,” Da Costa e Silva said, adding that about 1.3 million children a year were working in tobacco fields in 2011.

According to the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO), the numbers are rising with a shift in tobacco growing from some of the better-off countries to some of the poorer.

It declined between 2000 and 2013 in Turkey, Brazil and the US, but increased in others, such as Argentina, India and Zimbabwe, the report’s authors told the organization’s governing body in February last year.

Given that child labor in agriculture occurs more often in low-income countries, the ILO report said that “this shift in production may have resulted in increased child labor and other decent work deficits in tobacco production. Although there are no estimates of the number of child laborers in tobacco globally, surveys indicate that in impoverished tobacco growing communities, child labor is rampant.”

In Malawi, the Guardian witnessed children being taken out of school to weed the tobacco fields and harvest the leaves by parents who live in dire poverty. Some families in straw huts are paid nothing for 10 months until the tobacco crop is sold after the harvest. They live on a pail of maize a week provided by their landlords and must raise money to mill it by extra piecework in the fields, often also done by the children.

In Mexico, the Guardian saw children working in seven of 10 plantations visited in March in the Nayarit region, despite progress being made by the industry and government to tackle the problem and keep children in school.

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