Although smoking rates are declining across the West, the demand for tobacco is booming in the Global South, particularly across parts of Asia and Africa.
Yet this demand is coming at a cost: the cash crop, seen by some to be Zimbabwe’s ‘golden leaf’ to relieve the country’s economic woes, is being harvested by children. It’s a dangerous task that leaves children poisoned and unable to attend school during harvests.
A 2017 investigation by Human Rights Watch unearthed that children aged 12 to 17 were working during harvests and that workers of all ages were “pushed to work excessive hours without overtime compensation, denied their wages, and forced to go weeks or months without pay.”
With the transition of power from Robert Mugabe to Emmerson Mnangagwa late last year, activists are hoping that the new president — who says he wants to overhaul agricultural policies — will officially outlaw dangerous child labor.
The Nation reports:
HRW researcher Margaret Wurth tells The Nation that “if authorities want tobacco to be central to the economy, to be a pillar of the country’s economic recovery, they need to make sure that the workers and the small-scale farmers sustaining the industry are protected.”
The effects of nicotine poisoning include coughing, skin and eye damage, chronic neurological disorders, and reproductive-health impacts. Children are disproportionately harmed when exposed during sensitive developmental stages. Additional toxicity comes from agricultural-pesticide exposure, associated with cancer and long-term neurological damage. Children are also at high risk for asthma and allergies due to the dust churned up during the harvesting, processing, and transportation of crops.
The workers interviewed, who had little effective union representation or contact with regulators, seemed mostly unaware of the hazards of their jobs. One farmer remarked, “You fall sick, but you don’t know what it is.” Proper protective gear was reportedly rarely used.
Aside from workers being kept in the dark about occupational health hazards, tobacco giants like Philip Morris and Imperial responded to Human Rights Watch’s report by saying that they had not received any major complaints of child labor and continued to source “ethically.”
Part of the problem is that some parents in Zimbabwe simply can’t afford to send their children to school, meaning they end up being absorbed into the workforce. Yet even children enrolled in school may be absent during the harvest; one middle-school teacher even said that farms impose quotas on child laborers.
Human Rights Watch is urging major tobacco brands to institute strict policies that would prohibit their suppliers from using child labor in producing tobacco.
As Wurth emphasized, economic development should not mean endangering Zimbabwe’s children.
“In Zimbabwe everyone calls tobacco the ‘golden leaf’. It’s seen as the potential solution to the country’s economic woes, and we want to make clear that’s coming at a cost.”