Tobacco: a deadly business / activist investors pressure £20bn companies over child labour

25 June 2018:

Despite tobacco giants’ policies against child labour, the practice remains widespread, experts say

The world’s biggest tobacco companies are coming under mounting pressure over child labour and working conditions in fields globally, from Zimbabwe to North Carolina.

The firms are facing intense scrutiny from unions, NGOs and academics.

While all have child labour policies in place and have formed organisations such as the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation (recognised by the UN), their actions have brought little change and are largely cosmetic, claims Marty Otañez, associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver. He has been working on the subject for 20 years and has done research in Malawi, Bolivia, Argentina, Tanzania, India and Kenya.

“There is a disconnect between what company representatives say they do and what they actually do,” he alleged. “In every segment during the tobacco production process, you find different magnitudes of child labour.”

Otañez said governments were often complicit because they did not want to deter overseas investors and relied on tobacco tax revenues. Tobacco companies wouldn’t be able to maintain their current rate of profits without the use of cheap labour, he added.

British American Tobacco (BAT), which became the world’s biggest listed tobacco company following its $49bn (£42bn) takeover of Reynolds American last year, the Marlboro maker Philip Morris International (PMI), the Virginia-based Altria, Japan Tobacco International (JTI), and Britain’s Imperial Brands made combined profits before tax of nearly £20bn last year.

A report entitled Bitter Harvest published in April by Human Rights Watch (HRW) said there was widespread child labour in tobacco farms in Zimbabwe, where multinationals such as BAT, JTI and Imperial buy tobacco. The NGO said this was consistent with its findings in Kazakhstan, the US, and Indonesia. A 2016 report by the not-for-profit organisation Swedwatch revealed widespread child labour across BAT operations in Bangladesh.

BAT said its follow-up review last year found no evidence of child labour in Bangladesh, and that its main supplier in Zimbabwe, Northern Tobacco, would undergo an external review this year by AB Sustain.

The HRW report is based on interviews with 64 small-scale tobacco farmers and 61 hired workers in Zimbabwe, one of the world’s largest producers of tobacco. It reported many farmers and workers, including children as young as 11, complained of symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, such as sickness, headaches and dizziness, from absorbing nicotine through their skin while handling tobacco plants. They had not been told how to prevent and treat the condition, HRW said. Workers also handled pesticides without adequate protective equipment, the report said.

All the tobacco firms say they have training policies.

At BAT’s annual general meeting (AGM) in London in April, the company’s board was grilled over its record on child labour. Sunniva Guatvik from the UK responsible-investment charity ShareAction said the two studies “show a gap between BAT’s policy commitments and continued, severe impacts on children in tobacco cultivation communities”.

The BAT chairman, Richard Burrows, said the board was “very sympathetic” to the issues raised. But, he added, “you will find BAT has not got any questions to answer in respect of these issues”. He insisted: “Human rights is something we take very seriously as a company and as a board.”

Guatvik asked BAT to publish more detailed information on how the situation was being monitored. Burrows said the company was meeting all the objectives set out by ShareAction, but the charity told the Guardian this was not the case.

Hazel Cheeseman, director of the anti-smoking charity Ash, also weighed inat the AGM, asking the company to clarify its position on child labour. BAT said its policy explicitly prohibited anyone under the age of 18 from undertaking tasks that involve direct contact with green tobacco, but it allowed those under 18 to carry out “non-hazardous tasks associated with tobacco growing”.

Jacqueline Baroncini of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers asked how the company could be sure that no children under 18 were working on farms supplying tobacco to BAT. Burrows reiterated that the programmes in place and the audits carried out assured him the policy was adhered to.

Otañez proposes an action plan that calls for tobacco companies and leaf buyers to allow better monitoring of their supply chains; fairer labour arrangements on farms, including collective bargaining rights; and help for farmers to switch away from tobacco to growing food crops.

In its report, HRW said most of the tobacco companies it had contacted now had policies banning children from activities involving direct contact with green tobacco. However, none of the companies prohibited children from handling dried tobacco, which has been linked to respiratory symptoms, such as coughing, difficulty breathing or tightness in the chest.

BAT told the Guardian that it does not allow under 18s to handle dried tobacco when there is a risk to their health.

Baldemar Velasquez, who in 1967 set up the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (Floc), which represents 10,000 migrant workers across several US states such as Kentucky and North Carolina, said the union had been talking to BAT for the last four years about improving pay and working conditions for those working in tobacco fields. “We as farm workers do the most arduous jobs in this industry,” he told shareholders at the AGM.

Floc is pushing for collective bargaining, higher tobacco pricing, better accommodation and better shower facilities for farm workers.

Some farms have showers, but not enough, Velasquez told the Guardian after the AGM. “There are three to four showers for 30 to 40 workers, and the heating unit runs out after two to three showers and it takes a couple of hours to heat up again. So workers wait or don’t shower at all.”

Velasquez, 71, started working on farms at the age of six, picking fruit and later tobacco – one of hundreds of thousands of children who joined their migrant parents working long hours in the fields in the US. He stressed the “need for proper bathing facilities to wash nicotine off in order not to get the green tobacco sickness”.

A BAT spokesperson said Reynolds American took farm worker welfare “extremely seriously” and was committed to ensuring its supply chain was fully compliant with relevant laws. “All farm workers have access to washing facilities, and Reynolds American also ensures that workers receive the required training and personal protective equipment to protect them from green tobacco sickness.”

Farm labourers have no collective bargaining rights in the US, and child labour is legal on farms. Children as young as 12 can start working unlimited hours outside of school, and children of any age can work on small or family-owned tobacco farms.

Velasquez said the stagnant tobacco price was a major problem, arguing that if farms were paid a fair price for their tobacco, they could invest in better facilities.

The five big tobacco companies said child labour was unacceptable and that they were working hard to stop it happening in their supply chain. They said they were encouraging farmers to grow other crops, but added that tobacco gave farms a better income.

A BAT spokesperson said: “We agree contracts with farmers at the beginning of each growing season – this not only guarantees that we buy their tobacco crop at a fair price, but also ensures farmers have a regular and secure income throughout the season, protecting them from market fluctuations.”

He added: “Growing tobacco for BAT is something the farmers we work with choose to do, and 90% of our farmers also grow other crops such as fruit, wheat and cotton.”

JTI said a contracted farmer in Malawi would earn three times more harvesting one hectare of tobacco compared with one hectare of groundnuts.

Altria, which sources 70% of its leaf in the US, told the Guardian it was committed to to addressing concerns about child labour and had taken “significant steps”. It said last year it had distributed 75,000 isolation gowns to tackle risks of green tobacco sickness and that its contracts required growers to comply with laws and regulations that protect workers.

PMI said it had been “making progress” in tackling complex issues on farms supplying to the company and had been working with partners to make improvements for workers. Contractors in the US must meet labour requirements, it added.

International labour standards state that children under 18 should be prohibited from hazardous work. According to the latest International Labour Organization estimates, there are still 152 million children involved in child labour around the world. The vast majority, 108 million children (71%), are working in the agricultural sector, including tobacco growing. 

Source: The Guardian


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