Indonesia: Child tobacco workers suffer as firms profit
May 25, Jakarta: Thousands of children in Indonesia, some just 8 years old, are working in hazardous conditions on tobacco farms.
Human Rights Watch in a new report released said Indonesian and multinational tobacco companies buy tobacco grown in Indonesia, but none do enough to ensure that children are not doing hazardous work on farms in their supply chains.
The 119-page report, “‘The Harvest is in My Blood’: Hazardous Child Labor in Tobacco Farming in Indonesia,” documents how child tobacco workers are exposed to nicotine, handle toxic chemicals, use sharp tools, lift heavy loads, and work in extreme heat. The work could have lasting consequences for their health and development. Companies should ban suppliers from using children for work that involves direct contact with tobacco, and the Indonesian government should regulate the industry to hold them accountable.
Indonesia is the world’s fifth-largest tobacco producer, with more than 500,000 tobacco farms. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that more than 1.5 million children, ages 10 to 17, work in agriculture in Indonesia. Human Rights Watch could not find any official estimates of the number of children working in tobacco farming.
Half the children interviewed reported nausea, vomiting, headaches, or dizziness, all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning from absorbing nicotine through their skin. The long-term effects have not been studied, but research on smoking suggests that nicotine exposure during childhood and adolescence may affect brain development.
Many child tobacco workers said they mixed and applied pesticides and other chemicals. Pesticide exposure has been associated with long-term and chronic health effects, including respiratory problems, cancer, depression, neurologic deficits, and reproductive health problems. “Argo,” a 15-year-old worker in Pamekasan, East Java, said he felt suddenly ill when applying a pesticide to his family’s farm: “Once I was vomiting. It was when it was planting time, and I didn’t use the mask, and the smell was so strong, I started throwing up.” Some children were also exposed to pesticides when other workers applied chemicals in the fields where they were working, or in nearby fields.
Most of the children interviewed worked outside of school hours, but Human Rights Watch found that work in tobacco farming interfered with schooling for some children. “Sari,” 14, from Magelang, Central Java, said she dreamed of becoming a nurse, but she stopped attending school after sixth grade to help support her family.
HRW shared its findings with 13 companies, and 10 responded. None of the four Indonesian companies provided a detailed or comprehensive response, and the largest two, Djarum and Gudang Garam, did not respond despite repeated attempts to reach them.
Under human rights norms, tobacco companies have a responsibility to ensure that the tobacco they purchase was not produced with hazardous child labor, Human Rights Watch said.
Most tobacco in Indonesia is bought and sold on the open market through traders and intermediaries, with the tobacco often passing through many hands before purchase by national or multinational companies. However, some farmers are under contract with individual companies.
The multinational companies that responded to Human Rights Watch prioritize direct contracting in their supply chains. Yet all also purchase tobacco on the open market, and none trace where open market tobacco was produced, and under what conditions.
Under Indonesian law, 15 is the minimum age for work, and children ages 13 to 15 may only do light work that does not interfere with their schooling or harm their health and safety. Children under 18 are prohibited from doing hazardous work, including in environments with harmful chemical substances. Any work involving direct contact with tobacco should be considered prohibited under this provision, due to the risk of nicotine exposure, Human Rights Watch said.
Indonesia has come under international scrutiny for failing to protect children from the dangers of smoking. Though Indonesian law prohibits the sale of tobacco products to children, nearly 4 million children, ages 10 to 14, become smokers each year, and at least 239,000 children under 10 have started smoking. More than 40 million Indonesian children under 15 are exposed to secondhand smoke.
The Oslo Times/HRW