Dossier: Tobacco’s big child labour problem

15 May 2019

This dossier (download here) was published in the May 2019 edition of Geographical magazine.

Written (link to article on Geographical’s website) by  Text by Mark Rowe • Cartography by Benjamin Hennig

“Despite cigarette consumption dropping globally, their manufacture is still one of the world’s most profitable industries. For many farmers, tobacco cultivation is a vital source of income. One big problem – much of the labour is carried out by children.”

“Agriculture, including tobacco growing, is the sector with the most child labour according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). The inescapable fact, says Human Rights Watch (HRW), is that many of the world’s most popular brands of cigarettes contain tobacco collected by vulnerable child workers.”

Repugnant as child labour is, addressing its use on tobacco farms requires the need to unpick the underlying social and economic problems faced by countries in which it happens. “Child labour does not simply occur randomly but is a direct result of poor working conditions,” says Mischa Terzyk, a spokesperson for the Framework Convention Alliance (FCA), an umbrella group of NGOs engaged in the World Health Organization’s overarching tobacco control programme.

“You get paid what the big producers want to pay you,” he adds. “Often, farmers are struggling financially or are so desperate to meet quotas that they fall back on the labour of children. But every parent would prefer to send their child to school rather than send them to the fields and expose them to the dangers of tobacco farming. What we need is for people to be paid a living wage and to transition to alternatives.”

One of the problems is that, like palm oil, tobacco is mostly grown as a monoculture. “Tobacco is hard on the soil,’ says the FCA’s Mischa Terzyk. “With the use of water and insecticides, farmers get locked into a cycle. It’s a problem throughout the whole sector. It’s not just about working below a living wage, it’s about living below a minimum wage.”

Terzyk feels that international regulations such as the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control are great tools, but that implementation on the ground is lagging behind. “You need to continue development policies in tobacco control and help farmers with upfront investment. These farmers are farmers first of all, not only tobacco farmers – they are doing it to make a living.”

The FCA, however, is dismissive of ECLT’s approach. Terzyk says that tobacco companies, via their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, “do just enough to have a fig leaf.” CSR activities by tobacco companies may create a little bit of goodwill but that, he says, is as far as it usually goes. “CSR is played up for PR purposes. This behaviour obviously raises the question of why this PR money is not invested into higher wages. The efforts that are made to verify that the chain is child labour-free are ineffective and insufficient.”

“It has been like this for years and tolerated and taken advantage of by the industry,” says Terzyk. “What you are producing in the end is absolutely useless, this is a product that causes cancer. We need to transition to crops that actually benefit people rather than harm them. They [the tobacco companies] are as profitable as ever. The leaf price is incredibly cheap. If companies wanted to give farmers a higher wage, they could.”

Download the dossier here.


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