The hazards of industrial development have been polluting and sickening African societies for generations, but one of the most toxic commodities isn’t found in the oil fields or mines often associated with pollution. The continent’s new “resource curse” can be found in the golden fields of its lushest cash crop: tobacco. Disturbing patterns of child exploitation pervade the tobacco fields, leaving rural youth poisoned for life while tobacco brands fuel the world’s deadliest habit, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) research.
Though smoking rates are declining across the West, tobacco retail markets are booming in the Global South, and Asia and Africa are driving tobacco farming as a premier high-value commodity. Through field research during 2017, HRW investigators discovered that children of 12 to 17 years old were regularly employed during the harvesting and processing seasons in Zimbabwe, and workers of all ages were “pushed to work excessive hours without overtime compensation, denied their wages, and forced to go weeks or months without pay.” Youth in the fields are particularly vulnerable, because tobacco picking is not officially regulated as dangerous work for children in the country, despite the clear health and social threats linked to child farm labor.
Though multinational corporations bear special responsibility for labor violations, which hit both wage laborers and smallholder farmers, “the government and tobacco companies are failing to ensure that workers have sufficient information, training, and equipment to protect themselves.” Unlike countries such as Brazil and Indonesia, which have made strides in eradicating child labor, such exploitation remains an open secret in Zimbabwe, thanks to corruption and incompetent regulation.
The ouster of Robert Mugabe last November appeared to open opportunities for democratic reform after decades of dictatorship. His successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, a more business-friendly strongman, has vowed to overhaul agricultural policy by returning control to local people. Human-rights activists warn that child labor must be immediately outlawed as a basic step toward restoring the economy while redressing abuses throughout the agricultural system.
HRW researcher Margaret Wurth tells The Nation that “if authorities want tobacco to be central to the economy, to be a pillar of the country’s economic recovery, they need to make sure that the workers and the small-scale farmers sustaining the industry are protected.”
The effects of nicotine poisoning include coughing, skin and eye damage, chronic neurological disorders, and reproductive-health impacts. Children are disproportionately harmed when exposed during sensitive developmental stages. Additional toxicity comes from agricultural-pesticide exposure, associated with cancer and long-term neurological damage. Children are also at high risk for asthma and allergies due to the dust churned up during the harvesting, processing, and transportation of crops. The workers interviewed, who had little effective union representation or contact with regulators, seemed mostly unaware of the hazards of their jobs. One farmer remarked, “You fall sick, but you don’t know what it is.” Proper protective gear was reportedly rarely used.