Tobacco industry labour conditions
The global tobacco market accounted for $663.76 billion in 2017, and the tobacco industry is an economic sector employing millions of men and women. However, behind the scenes of the tobacco industry lies the death of 8 million people yearly, the creation of dependency and diseases for tobacco farmers, as well as extreme poverty, child labor and environmental issues. Tobacco industry labor conditions are very poor and require reform.

Tobacco Farmers

The tobacco industry controls the tobacco cycle from seed to sale and in most producing countries, tobacco companies operate in a contract system through which companies provide the inputs required–including seeds and chemicals for production–in the form of credit for farmers. Farmers agree to sell their tobacco leaf to specific companies at a set price in return. For many farmers, the revenue earned from their tobacco leaf sales barely suffices to cover their costs or repay their loans. This creates a debt cycle.

Moreover, Human Rights Watch reported labor rights abuses on large-scale tobacco farms. In Zimbabwe, some workers reported overtime and excess working hours after their employers pressured them, but they did not receive compensation for it. Other incidents and labor abuses include underpaid or delayed wages and occasionally going two months without receiving their salary, which makes it hard for workers to maintain a basic living standard.

Health Issues

Tobacco cultivation exposes workers and farmers to health hazards from pesticide exposure to nicotine poisoning. Physical contact with wet tobacco leaves causes the body to absorb nicotine leading to poisoning called green tobacco sickness (GTS). This involves symptoms of nausea, vomiting, fluctuating blood pressure and heart rate and trouble breathing, and they are quite frequent among tobacco workers.

Tobacco industry labor conditions expose workers to high amounts of pesticides which damages the human nervous system and can also cause pesticide poisoning; common symptoms include convulsions, respiratory problems, nausea, kidney damages and skin irritation. Children to have a lower intoxication threshold due to their smaller body mass and weaker immune system, which reinforces the issue of child labor in the tobacco industry.

Child Labor in the Tobacco Industry

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 108 million children work in agriculture, representing 70 percent of overall child labor. Although child employment is not easy to verify, some believe that millions work in the tobacco industry. Families living in poverty and dependent on tobacco production for a living often make their children work in tobacco farms and factories to help them. Because children start working from a very early age, they do not obtain a necessary education which could help them break away from the poverty cycle.

Child labor in the tobacco industry is prominent in India, especially in the production of Bidi. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 10 percent of female workers and 5 percent of male workers in the bidi industry in India are below the age of 14 and that 40 percent of those children never went to school. Besides, although child labor is illegal in India, the county cannot incriminate employers as they do not include working children officially on their payrolls.

Many companies in the tobacco industry have adopted policies prohibiting children from working in direct contact with green tobacco, which is a step forward in limiting the health risks for children working in the tobacco industry. However, none of the tobacco companies adopted policies prohibiting the involvement of children working in direct contact with tobacco (such as dry tobacco). Moreover, the tobacco industry does not have, unlike other industries, a zero-tolerance policy for child labor, despite publicly condemning it.

International Reaction

In June 2018, 130 public health and sustainable development organizations wrote a letter to the ILO urging it not to renew or extend contracts with Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco-Growing (ECLT), which is a group that the tobacco industry funds, and Japan Tobacco International (JTI), which ties the ILO to the tobacco industry. Yet, despite the recommendations from the U.N. Interagency Task Force (UNIATF), the ILO still has not cut its ties, which include funding, and its partnerships with the tobacco industry. With regards to tobacco companies, some ‘Tobacco giants’ begun reforming their practices, such as Philip Morris International who committed to eliminating child labour entirely from its supply chain by 2025, hopefully leading the way for the rest of the industry.”

Considering that one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (Target 8.7) aims to eradicate child labor in all its forms by 2025, the ILO must make it a priority and address the root causes of child labor. Besides, companies and governments must work hand in hand to increasingly adopt adequate labor policies to improve tobacco industry labor conditions, reduce the health risks workers and farmers suffer from, as well as enforce a zero-tolerance child labor policy.

Andrea Duleux
Photo: Flickr