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Child labour and human rights abuses on tobacco farms in Zimbabwe exposed in newly launched report by Human Rights Watch

April 5, 2018

By Wallace Mawire

Children and adults who work on Zimbabwe’s tobacco farms are
reportedly facing serious risks to their health as well as labor
abuses, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released in Harare
today. According to HRW, 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 labor
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 analyzed 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 labor, 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 labor and other human rights abuses.

Human Rights Watch contacted the companies that collectively bought 86
percent of Zimbabwe’s tobacco in 2016. Most of the multinational
companies involved have policies prohibiting their suppliers from
using child labor 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 labor ministry
told Human Rights Watch that it had not documented any cases of child
labor 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
labor 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 organizers told Human Rights Watch that they were
concerned that the government lacked the resources and personnel for
effective labor 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.”

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