Tobacco companies are not doing enough to prevent child labour in tobacco farming, according to Human Rights Watch.
Imperial Tobacco and British American Tobacco, two of the largest tobacco firms in the UK, both purchase tobacco from Indonesia. Both firms can’t guarantee that their tobacco is not made using child labour, according to a new report by the rights group.
Philip Morris International and four other multinational companies were also named in the research.
“Most companies do some monitoring and report on their results, but it is not enough. The industry should get to the farm level and inspect how exactly their tobacco is made and where it is coming from. Tobacco companies should not be profiting from child labour,” Margaret Wurth, children’s right researcher at Human Rights Watch told The Independent.
Human Rights Watch conducted research between September 2014 and 2015 in tobacco farming in four provinces in Indonesia and interviewed more than 100 children under 18.
HRW claims that tobacco companies should do more to eliminate child labour within they supply chain through meticulous investigation as well as adequate monitoring and external audit.
Indonesia is the world’s fifth-largest tobacco producer, home to more than 500,000 tobacco farms nationwide.
Hundreds of children as young as eight are endangering their health by participating in a range of tasks including planting applying pesticides or harvesting tobacco leaves by hand, HMW said.
Many suffered from nausea, vomiting and dizziness. These are all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning or 'green tobacco sickness', the group claims.
“After too long working in tobacco, I get a stomach ache and feel like vomiting. It’s from when I’m near the tobacco for too long,” Rio, a 13-year-old boy, working on tobacco farms in Central Java, told HRW in 2014.
He likened the feeling to motion sickness, saying: “It’s just like when you’re on a trip, and you’re in a car swerving back and forth.”
Children also reported working long hours in extreme heat and without wearing any type of protective equipment while handling tobacco.
Wurth said it is the companies’ responsibility to ensure no child under 18 is working in direct contact with tobacco in any form.
All the multinational companies mentioned in the report are committed to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) human rights conventions.
Under these conventions, the general minimum age for admission to employment or work is 15 years old (13 for light work) and the minimum age for hazardous work is 18 (16 under certain strict conditions).
Philip Morris International (PMI), which has six of the world’s top 15 international brands including Marlboro, has the best practices when it comes to transparency and monitoring procedures, HRW said.
“We are encouraged to be recognized for the transparency of our efforts to address hazardous farm working conditions for children on tobacco farms in Indonesia. Our Agricultural Labor Practices (ALP) programme is showing tangible progress to eliminate child labor on all farms where we source tobacco, yet we agree with HRW that there is much work still be to done,” Miguel Coleta, PMI sustainability officer said.
Imperial Tobacco told The Independent that the company takes its responsibilities in the purchasing and cultivating of tobacco leaf very seriously and expect its suppliers’ work practices to reflect the high standards set by the company. But it admitted child labour is a risk in agricultural supply chains.
“Given the complexity of this problem of course it not possible to provide this guarantee. We source tobacco from more than 40 countries worldwide, and as just one of the many stakeholders involved, we cannot be everywhere at once” it said.
“That does not stop us from continuing to work with all out stakeholders, including HRW, to acknowledge and address concerns. Child labour is totally unacceptable,” the company added.
British American Tobacco said the company and its Indonesian subsidiary Bentoel, take the issue of child labour extremely seriously.
“We do not employ children in any of our operations worldwide and make it clear to all of our contracted farmers and suppliers that exploitative child labour will not be tolerated. In Indonesia, however, children often participate in agriculture to help their families, and to learn farming methods and skills from their elders,” BAT said.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) also recognises that in poor communities, often on small family farms, low risk work that doesn’t interfere with schooling and leisure time can be a normal part of growing up in a rural environment.
British American Tobacco said it is working with the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco growing foundation (ECLT) and other stakeholders in Indonesia to tackle exploitative child labour in leaf growing areas, and are conducting research in to identify existing efforts, and current and ongoing needs.
“The insights gained from this research will allow for a new approach to be developed to tackle child labour in the region,” the company said.
Wurth said companies have the responsibility to create alternative opportunities for children in the region but not in jobs that put their health at risk.
“Businesses are encouraged not only to adopt child labour policies but also to work with government and social partners to promote education and programs to support youth employment and job opportunities for young workers,” Wurth said.
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