Child labour and human rights breaches in Zimbabwe tobacco farms



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In the week of its AGM, ASH is urging British American Tobacco (BAT) to stop turning a blind eye to child labour and unacceptable working conditions on Zimbabwean tobacco farms which supply 6% of the company’s tobacco leaf.

BAT’s ‘Supplier Code of Conduct and Child Labour Policy’, published in 2016, outlined its commitment to ensuring a safe working environment and prohibiting child labour. Yet a report from Human Rights Watch published this month entitled ‘A Bitter Harvest’ finds farmers in Zimbabwe are ill-informed of the risks associated with nicotine exposure, and are not receiving the necessary training or equipment to protect themselves. [1]

As a result, many tobacco farmers reported symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, such as sickness and dizziness, which happens when workers absorb nicotine through their skin while handling tobacco plants. Others claimed they were pushed to work excessive hours without overtime compensation, denied their wages, and forced to go weeks or months without pay.

This ill-treatment is not confined to adults. BAT’s code specifically identifies hazardous tasks which under 18’s should not perform in tobacco farming. These include harvesting, topping and suckering. Yet child labour continues to be widespread within the tobacco industry in Zimbabwe, with many under 18s working in conditions that threaten their health and safety or interfere with their education. Children are more vulnerable to nicotine poisoning than adults, and new evidence also shows that children are, in some cases, mixing, handling, or applying pesticides directly to crops, putting them at further risk. Compounding this, children who engaged in tobacco farming were frequently absent from school during the tobacco growing season, causing them to fall behind with school work.

Most workers said that, as far as they knew, union organizers were the only people to inspect conditions at their workplaces and speak with them about grievances. Very few of the hired workers on small or large-scale farms who were interviewed said they had ever seen a labour inspector or other government official visit their workplace to inspect working conditions.

In response to criticisms from Human Rights Watch about the rigour and effectiveness of BAT’s implementation of its code, the company said a revised audit system due to be implemented in 2018 would include visits to tobacco farms and in-depth analyses of suppliers’ policies, processes, and practices. However, the on-site review will only last four days, with only one day of field visits. It also does specify how many auditors are involved in these visits or how many farms will be visited. BAT has also committed to ‘undertake an interim review on human rights via unannounced farm visits by BAT to Zimbabwe farms, planned for early 2018’, but what this will amount to has never been made clear.

These are fine words, but the track record to date in Zimbabwe does not encourage confidence, and BAT’s processes lack transparency or detail. BAT must go a great deal further, and commit to adopting the recommendations set out in the Human Rights Watch report. To do less is unacceptable.

[1] Human Rights Watch. A Bitter Harvest: Child Labor and Human Rights Abuses on Tobacco Farms in Zimbabwe. 2018. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/zimbabwe0418_web_2.pdf