In Malawi alone, there are about 78,000 children working on tobacco plantations. But child labour is also widespread in other countries such as Brazil, India and the USA.
Children from 5 years upwards prepare seedbeds by turning the soil and felling trees. They fertilise and spray the tobacco plant with pesticides without wearing any protective clothing. Close contact with the tobacco leaves during harvest, exposes children to the risk of contracting the green tobacco sickness, through the absorption of nicotine through the skin. In the case of children, just a small amount of the nerve poison can lead to nicotine poisening, causing nausea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness. According to research conducted by Plan International, child workers in Malawi might absorb up to 54 milligrammes of nicotine through the skin in one day- an amount contained in the equivalent of 50 cigarettes. 1
Helping their Families Survive
Through their work, these children are contributing to their families’ income- a help without which these would not be able to get by. This is due to the low prices paid for harvest by tobacco companies and plantation owners. As a result, farming families have to grow more tobacco than can be managed by the labour of adult workers alone. These farmers cannot afford to pay for seasonal workers. Children and relatives on the other hand are generally not remunerated. This is why tobacco farming is usually family work.
Why is Child Labour bad?
The use of child labour in tobacco farming is dangerous, since children are exposed to chemicals. Moreover, the plant itself is poisonous. Injuries and diseases that can result from working in tobacco farming are 2
- Poisoning, e.g. the green tobacco sickness
- Skin rash, allergic reactions, breathing difficulties, vision impairment, chemical poisoning, liver damage, nervous diseases and infertility through contact with chemicals such as fertlizers and pesticides
- Bone and joint deformation caused by carrying heavy loads
- Back pains during harvest
- Snakebites and mosquito-borne diseases
- Cuts and blisters
- Severe exhaustion and fatigue
Furthermore, this type of work interferes with the children’s development and prevents them from getting sufficient education to break out of the cycle of poverty.
According to article 32 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, children may engage in work that is unhazardous and light in nature. As this is not the case with tobacco farming, children under 18 years of age should not be allowed to perform any tasks that are related to the production of tobacco.
What must be done to stop child labour in tobacco cultivation?
- Tobacco companies must pay higher prices, so that farming families can subsist without having to involve their children in tobacco-related activities. The Corporate Social Responsibility programmes 3 run by the tobacco firms will otherwise remain mere PR campaign, designed to improve the companies´image.
- Workers’ basic rights must be respected. They need written contracts, adequate pay, clean drinking water and sufficient food.
- Tobacco farmers and labourers need alternative means of subsistence. This calls for the cultivation of different crops and requires fair contracts (fair trade).
- The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child prescribes compulsory basic education; this must be enforced. Also, more schools are needed in tobacco growing regions (e.g. in Malawi).
- School meal programmes are a good incentive for parents to send their children to school. It is particularly good if the food used is locally grown, as this creates alternative means of subsistence in the concerned regions.
- Plan Malawi, Hard work, long hours, little pay. Research with children working on tobacco farms in Malawi (Lilongwe: Plan International, 2009): http://plan-international.org/about-plan/resources/publications/protection/hard-work-long-hours-and-little-pay ↩
- International Labour Office and International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), Children in hazardous work: What we know, what we need to do (Geneva: International Labour Office, 2011), 21: http://www.ilo.org/ipecinfo/product/viewProduct.do?productId=17035 ↩
- Programmes through which companies try to act in a more responsible manner towards their employees and/or the environment, for example by building a school or a well. ↩