In late 2014, the tobacco industry was confronted with the revelation of child labour on US tobacco farms, detailed in a well-researched 139 page report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The USA is not alone; most major tobacco producing countries use child labour in tobacco growing. In other words, almost no cigarette can be guaranteed to be free from child labour
The US Department of Labor lists 17 countries which use child and forced labour in tobacco and bidi production. Although extensive, the list is incomplete – for example, the United States itself is not included. Prior to the 2014 report about US tobacco farms, research reports on Kazakhstan in 2010 by Human Rights Watch and Malawi in 2009 by Plan Malawi attracted worldwide media coverage.
Despite the known scale of the problem, every time a new report is published tobacco companies react with apparent surprise, and depict the problem as an isolated local rather than global issue, detached from the structural power relations within which the industry operates. In the wake of the HRW report on Kazakhstan, Philip Morris said it was ‘grateful’ that the NGO raised the issue, despite the fact that it sent officers to its contract farms on a regular basis.
The child labour issue is nothing new for the tobacco industry, as can be easily researched with the internal documents database. In 1999, British American Tobacco (BAT) for example showed its awareness of the problem when one of its representativesdiscussed how it could best ‘get value for [its] cash and time contribution’ to the International Tobacco Growers’ Association (ITGA). “I would in particular very much like them to delve more into the child labour and WHO issues…Otherwise what is the point of having the membership and paying the money?” wrote Shabanji Opukah, BAT’s corporate social responsibility manager. Sixteen years later, little appears to have been done to find and implement sustainable solutions to improve tobacco workers’ lives.
On December 10th, 2014, tobacco companies through their Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing (ECLT) foundation announced a pledge to end child labour in their supply chains. In particular, they announced a commitment to adhere to international labour laws and children’s rights’ conventions that prohibit hazardous work for children under 18 – commitments that have already been signed by most countries.
Reuters published an article that boils down to HRW praise of the pledge as a ‘first time’ thing, lending legitimacy to the move and tobacco industry as a whole, although it noted that significant gaps remain and some key players such as China National Tobacco Corporation and Reynolds Tobacco are not ECLT members. At the end of December, a New York Times editorial also discussed the issue. While putting an emphasis on the need for the US government to pass a law that prohibits the work of children under 18 in tobacco, it praises the tobacco industry. Among others, the article says: “Given Big Tobacco’s shameful history of marketing cigarettes to children, it is noteworthy that the industry is willing to do the right thing in the case of child workers.”
While any move to improve its business practices is welcome, given its history, it seems the tobacco industry is more focused on doing the right thing for its public image than safeguarding the rights of child workers. The industry is particularly keen to embrace voluntary agreements which provide good public relations, while being unenforceable. With articles like the New York Times editorial, big tobacco succeeds in being seen as part of the solution rather than the problem. This obscures the fact that tobacco industry is extremely monopolised, has a record of collusion and suppression of leaf prices, interferes with policy development and invests in NGOs such as ITGA, ECLT and many others in tobacco growing countries, in order to be seen as a good corporate citizen.
For many farming households in developing countries, tobacco production is a precarious livelihood, overshadowed by debt and the threat of poverty. If smallholder farmers – who produce much of the world’s tobacco leaf – do not receive enough money in exchange for their tobacco, they have little choice but to enlist their children to work. Human Rights Watch, in its otherwise well-researched report, fails to analyse the structures and power relations of the global leaf market, and the role of tobacco industry financing in encouraging the expansion of tobacco cultivation.
Lay people, and unfortunately also development professionals, may believe that voluntary industry pledges are a shortcut to improving human rights and reducing poverty. Companies seem to react quickly while governments take longer to develop, debate, pass and implement laws. However, examining the history of tobacco industry pledges regarding child labour, little has changed in the past 16 years. To achieve sustainable human rights improvements, properly-enforced laws that make corporations accountable and change power relations between workers and companies are needed, rather than voluntary industry codes.
It is noteworthy that the industry found it necessary to pledge to abide by national and international laws. Do they really deserve congratulations for trying not to break the law?