Tobacco production is a multi-billion-dollar global industry. Unfortunately, the cultivation of tobacco engages the labour of children in extremely dangerous environments, which has both immediate and long-term consequences for society. Tobacco production and consumption are public health issues with human rights implications.
Tobacco is now produced in 125 countries, including Kenya. In a quest to lower production costs and increase shareholder value, multinational companies move into less regulated countries, where they negotiate extremely low prices that often result in debt servitude or the producers’ use of child labor.
Indonesia is the world’s fifth-largest tobacco producer. It is home to more than 500,000 tobacco farms nationwide. Although domestic and international laws prohibit children under 18 from performing hazardous work, thousands of minors work in harmful conditions on tobacco farms, exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, extreme heat and other dangers.
This work could have lasting consequences on their health and development.
Agriculture is one of the few industries that exempt some employers from mandates to provide a safe working environment for employees across the globe. Research has shown that agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries. In the United States, for instance, the agricultural industry has the second-highest fatality rate among young workers. Nearly half of the total occupational fatalities among children occur in agriculture.
Children start at the age of five to prepare seedbeds by turning the soil and felling trees. They weed the fields, fertilise the tobacco plants and spray pesticides without protective gear. During harvesting the green tobacco leaf, children are exposed to the risk of contracting nicotine poisoning, because the chemical in the wet leaves is absorbed by their bodies through the skin.
Causes severe poisoning
A small amount of the neurotoxic substance already causes a severe nicotine poisoning called Green Tobacco Sickness. That causes nausea, vomiting, headache and dizziness. Research by Plan International shows that child workers in Malawi might absorb up to 54 milligrammes of nicotine daily through the skin. That is equivalent to the nicotine contained in 50 cigarettes.
Due to the low prices for tobacco leaf paid by manufacturers and plantation owners, farmers struggle to make a living. As a result, farming families are forced to grow more tobacco than they can manage by using the adults’ workforce. These farmers cannot afford to pay seasonal workers while children and relatives are mostly not paid. Therefore, tobacco farming is usually family work.
Article 32 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children may engage in work that is light and not hazardous. This is not the case with tobacco farming: Therefore, anybody under 18 should not be allowed or directed to perform any task related to the production of tobacco.
Mr Mwangi is the manager, Corporate Communications, at Nacada. [email protected]