By now, we all know that smoking cigarettes is bad for your health. But it can also be bad for the health of the people that make those cigarettes – especially the farmers that come into close contact with tobacco crops.
In Zimbabwe, the world’s sixth largest tobacco producer, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has just released a new report detailing the serious health risks faced by tobacco farmers, as well as widespread labour abuses. Most seriously, the report reveals that the routine use of child labour in the cultivation and harvest of tobacco crops. Few of the adults or the children interviewed for the report had any awareness of the dangers of handling nicotine and toxic pesticides, which can lead to nausea, vomiting, headaches, or dizziness.
Children, because of their smaller size, are especially vulnerable to nicotine poisoning.
One 15-year-old child worker described his experience: “The first day I started working in tobacco, that’s when I vomited … Since I started this [work], I always feel headaches and I feel dizzy. I feel like I don’t have the power to do anything.”
Another tobacco worker, an 18-year-old in Mashonaland West, said: “During tobacco season, particularly curing time, I always have chest pains and coughing. We normally share our bedroom with cured tobacco, and the air isn’t good. It’s not safe. I also feel dizzy and have headaches.”
“Zimbabwe’s government needs to take urgent steps to protect tobacco workers,” said Margaret Wurth, children’s rights researcher at HRW and co-author of the report. “Companies sourcing tobacco from Zimbabwe should ensure that they are not buying a crop produced by child workers sacrificing their health and education.”
She added: “People we interviewed were shocked when they heard about how dangerous tobacco work is and were anxious to learn how to protect themselves, their children and their workers. The ‘golden leaf’ will only live up to its name when the authorities and tobacco companies confront the serious human rights problems on tobacco farms.”
Most major tobacco companies have detailed due diligence policies in place, but these are not always implemented in Zimbabwe, especially when it comes to small scale farms, said HRW.
Implementation is not helped by the fact that Zimbabwe has just 120 labour inspectors for the whole country.