Across the world, millions of children are involved in child labour, with the majority working in agriculture. It’s estimated that over a million of these children work in tobacco fields, putting their health and their futures at risk. In this piece we examine the latest research, the tobacco industry’s response, and consider what needs to change.
The reality of child labour
Latest research from the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Unicef, published for World Day Against Child Labour (12 June 2021), shows that progress to end child labour has stalled for the first time in 20 years. Across the world, over 160 million children are involved in child labour, and the number of children aged 5 to 17 years in hazardous work – defined as work that is likely to harm their health, safety or morals – now stands at 79 million, a rise of 6.5 million since 2016.
2021 is the International Year of the Elimination of Child Labour, and the UN has set a target of ending child labour in all its forms by 2025. But the Covid-19 pandemic has put pressure on the world’s poorest countries, forcing many children away from education and into work.
Child labour in the tobacco industry
While the exact number of children working in the tobacco industry is unknown, the ILO noted in 2017 that “in impoverished tobacco growing communities, child labour is rampant”. It quoted research from Malawi which revealed that 57% of all children in two tobacco-producing districts were involved in child labour; among tobacco growing families, 63% of children were engaged in child labour.
Farmers in Malawi, who filed a lawsuit against British American Tobacco for worker exploitation and child labour violations, say “they and their children work from 6 a.m. to midnight seven days a week in dangerous conditions, are forced to build their own mud houses, and fall deeper in debt to the companies because they are forced to borrow money to buy food”.
Not only are children working in the tobacco industry trapped in a cycle of poverty, they are exposed to serious health risks. Farming tobacco leaf involves gruelling physical labour, often in intense heat for long hours; exposure to pesticides, chemicals and fertilisers; and risks nicotine poisoning or green tobacco sickness which can cause headaches, nausea and vomiting.
The industry response
The Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco-Growing (ECLT) Foundation was set up in Geneva in September 2000. The Swiss-based non-profit organisation describes itself as an “independent foundation” and a “global leader” in eliminating child labour. In reality, the Foundation is both funded and governed by tobacco companies. After almost two decades of work, child labour remains entrenched in the tobacco industry, and critics of the Foundation argue that it has “failed in its stated objective of ending child labor in tobacco—a problem directly linked to the exploitative business practices of its funders and members.”
Child labour and Covid-19
According to research from Save the Children, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the number of children living in multidimensional poverty to 1.2 billion. Lockdown measures and economic hardship have meant millions of families and their children have fallen into deeper poverty and debt.
The new ILO report states that “additional economic shocks and school closures caused by COVID-19 mean that children already in child labour may be working longer hours or under worsening conditions, while many more may be forced into the worst forms of child labour due to job and income losses among vulnerable families.” Reports from Malawi suggest that as schools have closed, families keen for their children to be productive have pushed them into work. And the fear is that, once out of school, many children will not return.
What’s the solution?
The ILO report calls for action to protect children and eliminate child labour, including adequate social protection for all, better funded schooling, the promotion of decent and fairly paid work for adults, and investment in infrastructure and public services.
When it comes to the tobacco industry, there needs to be a much greater effort to externally monitor and audit tobacco companies and their supply chains. The biggest barrier to more effective tobacco control is the industry itself, and with regard to child labour, once again it is the tobacco industry that is a key obstacle in governments’ ability to assist tobacco workers and growers and protect children.
Under the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), governments commit to promote economically viable livelihoods that would cut out child labour and help tobacco farmers find alternative sources of income. But for governments to achieve this, action is needed to prevent industry interference.
Find out more
Read the statement from STOP, a global tobacco industry watchdog, responding to the latest child labour figures from ILO.
Watch a webinar from the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC) on how the WHO FCTC supports governments to eradicate child labour and remove tobacco industry interference, which took place on 15 June 2021. View on the GGTC website.