Child labor rampant in tobacco industry: report

The Guardian, KASUNGU, Malawi

Tue, Jun 26, 2018 - Page 6

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.

In Indonesia, the Guardian visited tobacco farming communities in Lombok and talked to child workers, including a 14-year-old who told of chest health problems that her family linked to working in the fields.

The US Department of Labor lists 16 countries where children are suspected to work in tobacco. Human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch have documented child labor in tobacco fields in Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Brazil and most recently Zimbabwe.

Experts say the very low prices paid to farmers in countries such as Malawi make child labor inevitable.

British American Tobacco (BAT) and Japan Tobacco International (JTI) say that light work in the fields that does not affect health or education is acceptable for 13-to-15-year-olds.

The average income of a tenant farmer in Kasunga, one of the biggest tobacco-growing areas of Malawi, for 10 months of work was 223,710 kwacha (US$296 at the current exchange rate), according to a study last year by the Centre for Social Concern, a Malawian non-governmental organization.

Each kilogram of tobacco is estimated to provide enough for 1,200 cigarettes. Tenant farmers in Kasungu last year earned 200 kwacha per kilogram when the crop was sold.

Tenant farmers are at the bottom of the tobacco food chain. They agree to work for a year for a contract farmer who has land, which he might own or have leased. That farmer’s contract is with one of the big leaf-buying companies — Alliance One, Universal (in Malawi known as Limbe Leaf) or JTI.

The leaf-buying companies agree to purchase tobacco from their contract farmers and supply seed, fertilizer, pesticide and tools.

The leaf buyers say they tell them not to employ children.

The leaf buyers are fulfilling orders from cigarette manufacturers: BAT, Philip Morris and JTI.

The tobacco giants have their own corporate social responsibility schemes, saying that they monitor child labor and build wells or schools.

However, the welfare projects were “pushing out goodwill on behalf of tobacco companies to address some of the problems, but avoid the harder issues of leaf prices and living and earnings,” said University of Colorado in Denver anthropologist Marty Otanez, who has studied tobacco farming in Malawi for many years.

All four major companies say they are doing what they can.

Child labor was endemic to agriculture but had been decreasing in areas where it directly contracted farmers, JTI said.

“The reality is that child labor stems from a combination of social, economic and regulatory causes. At JTI, we don’t pretend to be able to solve the problem of child labor on our own, but we are doing our utmost to play our part in solving the problem, working with others,” the company said.