Tell the World Health Organization to Call Action to Labor Rights Abuses in Tobacco

by Mitch Ellmauer, Intern, International Labor Rights Forum

Tobacco executives aren’t known for being the most ethical businessmen. They sell millions of cancer- 114 causing products every day, they market cigarettes to children, and they lie about the tobacco’s negative health effects. Considering how bad Big Tobacco treats its customers, it should come as no surprise that tobacco companies subject their workers and farmers to extremely exploitative labor practices, including: child labor, forced labor, debt bondage, human trafficking, and wage theft.

Like it or not, tobacco is one of the most profitable industries in the world. Over 100 million workers are employed in the industry, and tobacco is a major cash crop in 100 countries. The poorest of these countries have become dependent on tobacco exports and the victims of tobacco companies’ unfair trade policies.

Malawi, one of the world’s least developed countries, depends on tobacco for 70% of its yearly export revenues. Rampant poverty, widespread unemployment, and deep inequities in land distribution have driven down wages and working conditions for the county’s tobacco farmers and farmworkers. Malawi has the highest incidence of child labor in southern Africa; 66% of working children are employed on tobacco farms.

Tenant families are given small plots of land by large tobacco estates in exchange for producing a certain amount of tobacco every year. In addition to forcing tenants to turn over a large portion of their harvest as rent, they also charge for seeds and fertilizer. Many tenant farmers do not make enough to buy food; tenant children, some as young as 7, are forced to work beside their parents or as day laborers on other plots. They are subjected to hazardous manual labor, physical strain, dangerous environments, and long hours. The children are charged with strenuous tasks such as clearing the land, building tobacco drying sheds, weeding and plucking tobacco. Many of these tasks put them in unsafe situations.

Children are exposed to Green Tobacco Sickness, a type of nicotine poisoning caused by handling wet tobacco leaves with bare hands. Many children are also hired by estate owners to spray dangerous pesticides.

Child labor in tobacco harvesting isn’t only a problem in Malawi; it is also a problem in Kenya, where tens of thousands of children drop out of school every year to work in the tobacco harvest. According to Women for Justice in Africa, pregnant women can be regularly found working in the fields; they and their unborn children are exposed to the effects of pesticides, fertilizers, and Green Tobacco Sickness.

Tobacco workers also suffer in the United States and Canada. Tobacco companies and growers prey on migrant laborers. American tobacco workers are imprisoned them in labor camps, their wages are often stolen, and they suffer from Green Tobacco Sickness and are denied medical care. When migrant workers stand up for their rights they are threatened with deportation.

Clearly, labor conditions in the tobacco industry need to be addressed. Every May 31st, the World Health Organization (WHO) sponsors “World No Tobacco Day”, which is aimed at raising awareness about the negative health and social impacts of tobacco. Marty Otañez, an Anthropology professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, thinks that 2012’s “No Tobacco Day” should focus on the industry’s dangerous labor conditions and human rights abuses. If you agree, here’s a petition asking the WHO to make “Tobacco Industry Agriculture Exploitation” its theme for World No Tobacco Day. Sign it now!