Work on Zimbabwe's tobacco farms 'harming children'

By agency reporter
April 9, 2018

Children and adults who work on Zimbabwe’s tobacco farms are facing serious risks to their health as well as labour abuses, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on 5 April 2018. Child labour and other human rights abuses on tobacco farms in Zimbabwe tarnish the tobacco industry’s contributions to the country’s economic growth and improved livelihoods.

The 105-page report, A Bitter Harvest: Child Labor and Human Rights Abuses on Tobacco Farms in Zimbabwe, 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.

 “Zimbabwe’s government needs to take urgent steps to protect tobacco workers”, said Margaret Wurth, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “Companies sourcing tobacco from Zimbabwe should ensure that they are not buying a crop produced by child workers sacrificing their health and education.”

Human Rights Watch conducted research in the four provinces responsible for nearly all of Zimbabwe’s tobacco production. The report is based on interviews with 125 small-scale tobacco farmers and hired workers, including children or former child workers, in late 2016 and early 2017. Human Rights Watch also analysed laws and policies and reviewed other sources, including public health studies and government reports.

Human Rights Watch found that the government and companies have generally not provided workers with enough information, training, and equipment to protect themselves from nicotine poisoning and pesticide exposure. Human Rights Watch found similar conditions on tobacco farms in research in other countries, including the United States. But where governments have enacted strong laws against child labour, and provided extensive information about hazards and how to provide protection, such as in Brazil, there has been some progress in keeping children out of the fields and protecting other workers.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who replaced Robert Mugabe in November 2017, following military intervention, stated his administration’s economic policy would be based on agriculture. Zimbabwe is the world’s sixth-largest tobacco producer. The crop is the country’s most valuable export commodity, generating US$933 million in 2016.

Some of the world’s largest multinational tobacco companies purchase tobacco grown in Zimbabwe, either directly or at auction, including British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco Group, and Imperial Brands. Under human rights norms, companies buying tobacco from Zimbabwe have a responsibility to ensure that their business operations do not contribute to child labour and other human rights abuses.

Human Rights Watch contacted the companies that collectively bought 86 per cent of Zimbabwe’s tobacco in 2016. Most of the multinational companies involved have policies prohibiting their suppliers from using child labour and engaging in other human rights abuses, but Human Rights Watch’s findings suggest serious gaps in carrying out and monitoring these policies in Zimbabwe. Tobacco companies should explicitly prohibit direct contact by children with tobacco in any form, conduct regular and rigorous human rights monitoring in the supply chain, and report transparently on their findings, Human Rights Watch said.

One of the most serious health risks in tobacco farming is acute nicotine poisoning, or Green Tobacco Sickness, caused by absorbing nicotine through the skin from tobacco plants. The 14 child workers interviewed, and most of the adults, said they had experienced at least one symptom consistent with acute nicotine poisoning – nausea, vomiting, headaches, or dizziness – while handling tobacco.

'Davidzo', a 15-year-old worker said, “The first day I started working in tobacco, that’s when I vomited.” He said he felt especially sick when he carried the harvested leaves. “I started to feel like I was spinning,” he said. “Since I started this [work], I always feel headaches and I feel dizzy.” The long-term effects have not been studied, but research on smoking suggests that nicotine exposure during childhood and adolescence may affect brain development.

Zimbabwean law sets 16 as the minimum age for employment and prohibits children under 18 from performing hazardous work, but does not specifically ban children from handling tobacco. The labour ministry told Human Rights Watch that it had not documented any cases of child labour in the tobacco industry.

Almost no one interviewed had ever heard of acute nicotine poisoning or received information about how to protect themselves. “You fall sick, but you don’t know what it is”, said one 43-year-old farmer. Children and adults interviewed also handled toxic pesticides, often without proper protective equipment. Others were exposed to pesticides while someone else applied them nearby.

Human Rights Watch also found that some workers on large-scale farms worked excessive hours without overtime compensation, or that their wages were withheld for weeks or months, in violation of Zimbabwean labour law and regulations. Some workers said they were paid less than they were owed or promised, without explanation. A cash shortage in recent years has crippled Zimbabwe’s economy.

There are no agriculture-specific health and safety protections in Zimbabwean law or regulations, though the government is working with trade unions and other groups to develop occupational safety and health regulations for agriculture.

Zimbabwe has just 120 labor inspectors for the whole country. Farmworker union organisers told Human Rights Watch that they were concerned that the government lacked the resources and personnel for effective labour inspections.

“People we interviewed were shocked when they heard about how dangerous tobacco work is and were anxious to learn how to protect themselves, their children and their workers,” Wurth said. “The ‘golden leaf’ will only live up to its name when the authorities and tobacco companies confront the serious human rights problems on tobacco farms.”

* Read A Bitter Harvest: Child Labor and Human Rights Abuses on Tobacco Farms in Zimbabwe here

* Human Rights Watch https://www.hrw.org/

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