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Child labour

Big tobacco, child labour and the International Labour Organization

8 Feb, 16 | by Marita Hefler, News Editor



“The aim is to inhibit incorporation of ILO into WHO Anti-Smoking Program”

So states a Philip Morris memo from December 1988, available through the Truth Tobacco Industry Documents (see page 8).

Nearly 30 years on, the tobacco industry appears to be doing very well at nurturing its alliance with the International Labour Organization (ILO). In a May 2015 press release on its website, the ILO announced an agreement to “develop global guidance on hazardous child labour and occupational safety and health in tobacco growing” (a somewhat ironic goal for a product that kills 6 million people a year).

The agreement is with the august-sounding ‘Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco-growing Foundation’ (ECLT). The ILO press release has a paragraph about the ECLT Foundation:

‘The Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation is a global leader in preventing child labour in tobacco agriculture and protecting and improving the lives of children in tobacco-growing areas. ECLT strengthens communities, improves policies, and advances research so that tobacco-growing communities can benefit from agriculture while ensuring that their children are healthy, educated, and safe.’

In reality, ECLT is an alliance of tobacco companies and growers – a front group for the industry. ECLT’s stated intention may be to ensure tobacco-growing communities can ensure that their children are healthy, educated and safe, but the reality is that it is an industry that profits from people who overwhelmingly become addicted to its products as children, and which inflicts enormous hardship and poverty.

According to the ILO website, the agreement with ECLT “will promote tripartite action to ensure children do not perform this work”, and “its development will be facilitated by the ILO with advice from experts from the tobacco sector, academia, and others, and will include tripartite consultations.” It also states that the “results of efforts supporting social dialogue on combating child labour in agriculture in the three target countries will feed into the IV Global Child Labour Conference, to be held in Argentina in 2017.” Initiatives such as this provide the industry with the opportunity to have a seat at the policy table, among respected organisations and sometimes Member State Delegations, an effective counter to its status as a pariah industry.

The ECLT has been a key tobacco industry strategy in the wake of several damaging revelations about the extent of child labour within the industry in recent years. While the ILO website gives little away about the real nature of the ECLT, there is no such coyness on the Philip Morris (PMI) homepage, which displays the ILO logo as part of a promotion about Philip Morris’ child labour corporate social responsibility initiatives.

PMI’s ILO logo prompted the Pascal Diethelm, president of the Swiss health organisation OxyRomandie to write in January to the Director General of the International Labour Organization to draw attention to possible illegal use of the logo. He noted the importance of Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) to prevent tobacco industry interference in the policies of international organisations of the United Nations. Allowing the use of the ILO logo on the homepage of a tobacco multinational would appear to violate Article 5.3, and is particularly surprising given the ILO logo is legally protected and ‘may not be used without express permission, which will only be granted when appropriate in very limited circumstances’. At the time of publication, the ILO has yet to respond. (Read the letter here: 20160127-oxyromandie-letter-to-ilo-re-logo-on-pmi-website).










The OxyRomandie letter is not the first time the ILO has been alerted to the issues of collaborating with the tobacco industry. In August 2013, Dr Mary Assunta of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance wrote to then director of the International Program on Child Labour at the ILO to inform the agency of its obligations under the FCTC. She raised concerns about ILO endorsement of the ECLT, noting that it was likely in violation of FCTC Articles 5.3 and 13, and outlined the problem of the tobacco industry being given a platform to gain access to policy makers through its corporate social responsibility initiatives. She called on the ILO to dissociate itself from the ECLT and set a definitive deadline to completely halt child labour in tobacco farming. She also received no response. (Read the SEATCA letter here: 20130813-seatca-letter-to-ilo).

Additional links:

Eliminating child labour in Malawi: a British American Tobacco corporate responsibility project ot sidestep tobacco labour exploitation

SEATCA report – Child labour in tobacco cultivation in the ASEAN region

Tobacco industry confronted with child labour

27 Jan, 15 | by Marita Hefler, News Editor


By Laura Graen,

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 representatives discussed 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?

US: Child Workers in Danger on Tobacco Farms

15 May, 14 | by Becky Freeman, Web Editor

A Human Rights Watch report which included interviews with more than 100 child tobacco farm laborers in the South of the US has ruled that tobacco farming is so hazardous to children, it must be stopped.

The report documents how children are sickened by nicotine and toxic pesticides, work long hours in extreme heat without overtime pay, shade or sufficient breaks, use dangerous tools and machinery, and climb several stories without protection to hang tobacco in barns. Children reported vomiting, nausea, headaches and dizziness while working on tobacco farms, which are symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning.


The world’s largest tobacco companies buy tobacco grown on U.S. farms, but none have child labor policies that sufficiently protect children from hazardous work.

Matt Meyer’s from the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids:

“It is outrageous that in 2014, kids are still working on tobacco farms, putting their health and safety at risk. Tobacco manufacturers must be held accountable because even though they don’t own the tobacco farms, they contract directly with growers and have the ability to control who works in the fields. This report demonstrates that the tobacco industry cannot be trusted to police itself, and it is time for strong, well-enforced laws and regulations that prohibit the use of child labor on tobacco farms.

This report is yet another example of the tobacco industry’s disregard for the health of children. Tobacco companies have a long history of marketing to kids – called “replacement smokers” in industry documents – and 90 percent of adult smokers start at or before age 18. According to the latest Surgeon General’s report, 5.6 million U.S. children alive today will die prematurely from smoking-caused disease unless current trends are reversed.”



Southeast Asia: New report on child labour in the tobacco industry

27 Jun, 13 | by Marita Hefler, News Editor

A new report has been released by The Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) entitled Child labour in tobacco cultivation in the ASEAN Region. Launched in Jakarta, Indonesia on 12 June in commemoration of World Day Against Child Labour, the report is a response to the major problem of child labour in the cultivation of tobacco in the ASEAN region.

Activities carried out by children in the tobacco industry include planting and watering tobacco seedlings, transplanting seedlings, applying fertilizers, weeding, harvesting, hanging tobacco leaves from poles in drying sheds, and folding tobacco leaves. Child labourers are exposed to the elements and are vulnerable to physical and chemical injuries.  Children working with tobacco are also denied recreational activities for their emotional wellbeing and educational opportunities that could lead them out of poverty.

Childrens’ employment in the tobacco industry, and the related risks, violate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which sets out rights of children to attain the highest standard of health (Article 24) and education (Article 28) and to protect them from commercial exploitation (Article 32).

SEATCA has called for the following actions:

  • Set a definitive deadline, e.g. 2015, to completely halt child labour in tobacco farming and apply a phase-out plan at national level
  • National governments must take responsibility to end child labour in tobacco production and set up  disincentives for the tobacco industry to profit from tobacco leaves produced with child labour such as paying a bond;
  • Ban so-called CSR activities conducted by the tobacco industry directed at farming communities.

To read the full report, click here. 


Child labour and the tobacco industry in Pakistan

27 Aug, 12 | by Marita Hefler, News Editor

Thanks to our colleagues from The Network for Consumer Protection, Pakistan who provided the information and video in this post. (

This video shows children in northwest Pakistan preparing tobacco leaves to be sent for drying. Children as young as five years old also work in tobacco farming, where they are vulnerable to poisoning from pesticides and other tobacco sicknesses.

The province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) is the main tobacco growing region of Pakistan. This video was filmed in July 2012 in Sawabi district, where 50% of KPK’s crop is cultivated. With low economic development, few employment opportunities and a literacy rate of around 36%, tobacco is a major cash crop and tobacco farming is usually a family business.

Pakistan Tobacco Company (a subsidiary of British American Tobacco) and Philip Morris Pakistan Limited both source tobacco from these areas.

The exact number of children working in tobacco is not available, but the high poverty levels mean that children working in tobacco farming is a common sight in this area. It is an issue that receives scant attention from the government and media. Tobacco is considered a major source of revenue for the Pakistan government.

Although the government has a tobacco control cell, it also owns the Pakistan Tobacco Board which is responsible for tobacco promotion – resulting in toothless enforcement. It has been accused of not taking tobacco control seriously by farmers who say they do not want to grow tobacco, but feel they are forced to do so by poverty and government inaction to help them move to alternative crops.

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