Child Labour in Kazakhstan: US Probes Big Tobacco

16/7/2010 - Human Rights Watch discovers conditions of forced and child labourers on tobacco farms in Kazakhstan to be terrrible and the US Congress responds.

It has been revealed that a tobacco firm in Kazakhstan has been using child labour to produce and harvest tobacco crops. Many of the children are the children of migrant workers from the neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

The employment of children under 15 years old is illegal under the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. The abuses were discovered in a fact-finding mission by Human Rights Watch. The report of the mission is titled “Hellish Work.”

Children working alongside parents in order to help poor families make ends meet is not a common phenomenon in the developing world. Similar occurrences were observed by child laborers in the tobacco industry in Malawi and also in India during the construction of the facilities for the Commonwealth games this October. While children over 15 may engage in such economic activities in Canada, it is difficult to implement such laws elsewhere in the world.

The child labourers on tobacco farms in Enbekshikazakh district work grueling 20-hour days with some intermittent breaks. They are required to function on only than 4 hours of sleep a day. The children are as young as 10 years old and are overexposed to harsh pesticides, lack workers’ rights and cannot easily access safe drinking water as irrigation channels are contaminated with pesticides.

Even more dangerously, without adequate protection for their skin and respiratory systems, the children are exposed to high levels of nicotine. Many children have developed rashes.

The organization commented on the situation, highlighting the importance of the remuneration system. “Migrant workers get paid once at the end of the season by the volume of tobacco that they produce,” explains Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for Europe and East Asia. “That incentives child labor because these migrant workers travel with families and they need to get as many hands on the tobacco as possible.”

After Human Rights Watch’s report hit the media, a congressional investigation was launched in the US. It has requested the tobacco giant – and largest purchase of tobacco form Kazakhstan – Phillip Morris International (PMI) to submit to a panel any information regarding forced or child labour and unsafe working conditions in its overseas supplying markets. Information from January 2007 onwards must be surrendered to the panel

PMI received a draft copy of the report prior to its launch. A representative expressed appreciation for the gravity of the situation and said that is was “grateful to Human Rights Watch for bringing these matters to attention.”