Action on Smoking and Health

Tag Archives: Foreign Office

Child labour and human rights breaches in Zimbabwe tobacco farms

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:

How British diplomats have defended BAT’s overseas activities

British diplomats have defended BAT’s overseas activities, a company under investigation for corruption by the Serious Fraud Office

Despite the perennially gloomy economic forecasts about Britain, it stubbornly remains one of the world’s most powerful economies. The UK is currently the 5th largest economy by GDP [1] and a number of British companies are listed as some of the biggest in the world.

Unfortunately, amongst the remaining titans of commerce, monsters remain. Two of the largest tobacco conglomerates in the world are British. These are Imperial Tobacco, the world’s fourth-largest cigarette manufacturer [2] with its head office in Bristol. And the largest publicly traded tobacco company in the world, British American Tobacco (BAT) [3], which is based in the appropriately named Globe House, London.

The Government’s Tobacco Control Plan for England commits to creating the first “Smokefree generation” [4], and at current rates of decline in smoking prevalence we are on track to achieve this by 2030. However, it is an unpleasant fact that the transnational tobacco industry is compensating for declining markets in rich countries like ours, by marketing aggressively in poorer ones.

The two British tobacco giants both have significant global operations. BAT controls a myriad array of brands which are active across the world, and are particularly dominant in many Commonwealth countries. This is something that BAT proudly talks about on its slick, modern website, a gleaming example of digital sophistry.

However, behind the assured corporate slogans and sickly professionalism, the transnational tobacco industry is in retreat, under attack from a concerted global effort coordinated by the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control [5]. Since it came into force in 2005 the FCTC has been ratified by 181 countries, including the UK, covering over 90% of the world’s population. As well as implementing the treaty itself, the UK Department of Health is supporting low and middle income countries to do so too, with an investment of £15 million of Official Development Assistance funds [6]. A central plank of the project is increasing tobacco taxation to drive down tobacco consumption, a policy very successfully pursued by the UK.

The profits of Big Tobacco are under threat, and they know this. In an attempt to protect its revenue streams, BAT has been enlisting the help of British government officials in the Foreign Office and the Department for International Trade, to fight back against the very taxes and regulations recommended by another part of the British government.

The UK has guidelines which should prevent this, stating that “Posts must not: Engage with foreign governments on behalf of the tobacco industry, except in cases where local policies could be considered protectionist or discriminatory.” [7] Unfortunately this exception appears to be being used as a catch-all, get-out clause.

Initially it appeared to be a one off incident in Bangladesh. BAT had enlisted the British high commissioner to pressurise the Bangladeshi government to overturn a legal decision handed down by the courts on an unpaid VAT bill of £170 million.[8] But an investigation by The Observer has revealed a global pattern of engagement by British officials to actively defend BAT’s interests overseas. [9] This included meetings between embassy staff and BAT in Panama, a UK government trade advisor being seconded to BAT’s Hungary HQ and 25 meetings involving both the international trade department and BAT Venezuela.

When this was exposed the UK government tried to deny what was going on, telling The Observer: “Interactions with the tobacco industry are only permitted where necessary, and we do not allow our staff to encourage investment in the tobacco industry, or provide any assistance in helping tobacco companies influence local business policies like taxation to their advantage.” But it’s hard to see how the behaviour of British officials in embassies around the world are in accord with this statement. Furthermore BAT is a company currently under investigation by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office over allegations of corrupt business practices, [10] so it beggars belief that the British government should act as its lobbyist.

[1] Investopedia, The World’s Top 10 Economies, 7 July 2017

[2] The Telegraph, Alison Cooper: lighting up Imperial Tobacco, 21 March 2010

[3] Chicago Tribune, Shareholders back British American Tobacco buying Reynolds, 19 July 2017

[4] Department of Health. The Tobacco Control Plan for England, 18 July 2017

[5] The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) adopted by the Conference of the Parties to the WHO FCTC. Geneva. 2003

[6] Department of Health. Business Case: Official Development Assistance Project: Strengthening tobacco control in low and middle income countries. August 2017

[7] Department of Health/ Foreign & Commonwealth Office, United Kingdom’s revised guidelines for overseas posts on support to the tobacco industry, December 2013

[8] The Observer, (Jamie Doward). British diplomat lobbied on behalf of big tobacco, 10 September 2017

[9] The Observer, (Jamie Doward). UK accused of hypocrisy on overseas tobacco control, 27 January 2018

[10] Serious Fraud Office. British American Tobacco.

*All links active 25th April 2018