Tobacco is one of Zimbabwe’s most valuable exports, worth $993.7m in 2016 ©PA Images
Tobacco is one of Zimbabwe’s most valuable exports, worth $993.7m in 2016 ©PA Images

'Serious' human rights problems found in Zimbabwe tobacco sector

5 April 2018

Tobacco companies are not doing enough to protect the rights of workers in Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.

The rights advocacy group found “serious human rights problems” in the sector including the use of child labour and unsafe working conditions.

It found child workers on a number of farms and interviewed children with “specific symptoms associated with acute nicotine poisoning and pesticide exposure”.

“All of the child workers interviewed for this report said they had experienced at least one symptom consistent with acute nicotine poisoning – nausea, vomiting, headaches, or dizziness – while handling tobacco,” it said.

As part of a report released today, HRW called on big tobacco buyers to review their human rights policy and ensure workers in their supply chains have the appropriate training and safety equipment.

Tobacco companies need to adopt global human rights policies prohibiing the use of child labour, conduct “regular and rigorous” monitoring exercises within the supply chain including third party monitoring, and regularly publish results of internal and external monitoring, it said.

Companies should also review their human rights policies to ensure farmers – including those in remote areas – are well trained, that standards are communicated to them, and that all workers are given written contracts with labour requirements and protections clearly written.

Zimbabwe is one of the world’s top tobacco producers. The crop is one of the country’s most valuable exports, worth $993.7m in 2016, and is a vital part of the government's efforts to improve the economy.

HRW estimates tens of thousands of small-scale farmers and farm workers are dependent on the crop for their livelihoods.

But the crop is hazardous to grow without the right protection, and overhandling can cause acute nicotine poisoning, symptoms of which include dizziness and headaches. Workers at tobacco farms are also exposed to hazardous pesticides.

Both adults and children can be affected by nicotine poisoning, but HRC says children are more susceptible because of their size and because they are less likely to have developed a tolerance. 

The report said: “Many children under 18 work in hazardous conditions on tobacco farms in Zimbabwe, often performing tasks that threaten their health and safety or interfere with their education.

“Adults involved in tobacco production – both small-scale farmers and hired workers – face serious health and safety risks, but the government and tobacco companies are failing to ensure that workers have sufficient information, training, and equipment to protect themselves.”

HRW interviewed 64 small scale farmers for its report, and said more than half reported children under the age of 18 worked on their farms – either their own children or employees. The report also interviewed 61 hired workers and found half brought their children to work with them either as employees or unofficial help.

The organisation also interviewed 14 child workers between the ages of 12 to 17, and 11 young adults between the ages of 18 and 22.

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