Tobacco farmers accused of child labour, human rights abuses

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Taurai Mangudhla
Zimbabwe’s tobacco industry faces a new threat as global human rights watchdogs rouse the world against apparent violations by growers of the golden leaf in the country in respect of child labour.

Zimbabwe is the world’s sixth-largest tobacco producer, and the commodity is the country’s top export commodity.

A damning report released this week by Human Rights Watch titled “A Bitter Harvest: Child Labour and Human Rights Abuses on Tobacco Farms in Zimbabwe” has Zimbabwe as one of the nations where child and other forms of abuse and child labour is rife in the tobacco industry.

Human Rights Watch said child labour and other human rights abuses on tobacco farms in Zimbabwe tarnish the industry’s contributions to the country’s economic growth and improved livelihoods.

Based on interviews with 125 people working in tobacco farming across the country, the report documents how children work in hazardous conditions, performing tasks that threaten their health and safety or interfere with their education.

Child workers are exposed to nicotine and toxic pesticides, and many suffer symptoms consistent with nicotine poisoning from handling tobacco leaves. Adults working on tobacco farms in Zimbabwe also face serious health risks and labour abuses.

The research, according to Human Rights Watch, revealed an industry fuelled by impoverished small-scale farmers and vulnerable workers —including young child workers — who need greater protection from Zimbabwean authorities and tobacco companies.

The grouping said adults and children who were interviewed for this report all reported symptoms consistent with nicotine poisoning such as nausea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness, but almost none of them knew what nicotine poisoning was.

The report also found evidence of excessive working hours without overtime compensation on large-scale farms, and problems with wages, including having their wages withheld or delayed, and or being paid less than they were owed.

Some of these farms supply big UK tobacco companies, among them BAT and Imperial.

The Human Rights Watch recommends Zimbabwean authorities and tobacco companies to take urgent steps to end child labour and address the human rights abuses faced by small-scale farmers and hired workers sustaining the tobacco industry.

Tobacco grown in Zimbabwe is purchased by some of the largest multinational tobacco companies in the world.

This comes as the country’s tobacco faces strong headwinds in particular calls to ban tobacco consumption in public spaces and arguably moves to eventually stop consumption of tobacco under the World Health Organisation banner.

The WHO under the 2003 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is targeting 100 percent smoke-free environments (SFEs) on the basis it is the only proven way to adequately protect the health of all people from the devastating effects of second-hand tobacco smoke (SHS).

Several countries and hundreds of sub-national and local jurisdictions have reached this conclusion and successfully implemented laws that require almost all indoor workplaces and public places to be 100 percent smoke-free. These jurisdictions report large and immediate health benefits, showing that SFEs are feasible and realistic in a variety of contexts.

The WHO FCTC is a global public health treaty aimed at reducing the burden of disease and death caused by tobacco consumption.

The total number of parties to the WHO FCTC had reached 142 by 2006, covering more than three quarters of the world’s population.

WHO said the convention addresses tobacco control from both the supply and demand sides, by requiring price and tax increases on tobacco products, complete bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, and visible pictorial health warnings on all tobacco packages.

These policies focus on helping existing users to quit and preventing initiation, a move which affects the tobacco industries.

This arguably comes with complications to viability of the industry in the long term amid concerns tobacco growing nations could suffer.

Concerns on Zimbabwe labour and health safety procedures in the tobacco industry are a new hurdle.

The two, according to analysts could have a negative impact on global tobacco trade including Zimbabwe in the long term.

Tobacco is a key economic driver, providing employment to millions of Zimbabweans after the fast track land reform programme of 2000.

As of December 2017, TIMB said 100 723 farmers had registered for tobacco, an increase of 37 percent from the 73 658 who had registered during the same period last year.

TIMB statistics show that 2 million kgs of tobacco went under the hammer in the first week of marketing this year at an average price of $2,21 per kg.

Efforts to get a comment on implications of the report from TIMB CEO Dr Andrew Matibiri were fruitless.

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