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By **Rhoda Feng**

In a report released Wednesday, Human Rights Watch indicted the frequent use of child and forced labor on tobacco farms in the Central Asian state of Kazakhstan. Some migrant workers did extra farming and domestic chores for no pay, were cheated of earnings and deprived of regular wages, and had their passports confiscated by their employers, who supplied the harvested tobacco to Philip Morris Kazakhstan, a subsidiary of Philip Morris International Inc. Human Rights Watch determined that children as young as ten assisted their parents in cultivating tobacco, which made them especially susceptible to Green Tobacco Sickness, caused by the absorption of nicotine. Workers contract the illness by handling wet tobacco leaves, and they experience nausea, headache, vomiting, and dizziness. The report, based on interviews with sixty-eight tobacco farm employees in 2009, documented seventy-two cases of children aged ten to seventeen working in the Kazakh district Enbekshikazakh. “Kazakhstan’s government clearly needs to do much more to protect tobacco workers, but Philip Morris also has a key role to prevent abuses in its supply chain,” said Jane Buchanan, the author of the report.

Human Rights Watch determined that children as young as ten assisted their parents in cultivating tobacco, which made them especially susceptible to Green Tobacco Sickness, caused by the absorption of nicotine.

Workers—who toil for up to eighteen hours a day—are paid in a lump sum at the end of each tobacco season, so leaving before the eight to nine month harvest would mean relinquishing compensation for all previous work. In some instances, workers were locked into “debt bondage,” whereby they continued working whole seasons in order to discharge debts incurred from the consumption of food and water provided by the farm owner. Of the three hundred thousand to one million migrant workers who travel to Kazakhstan each year in search of employment, a majority are from neighboring countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where job prospects are even bleaker. Given the Hobson’s choice of enduring abusive treatment from their employers or leaving and losing pay, many migrant families choose the former. Almira, who travelled to Malybai, Kazakhstan with her husband and daughter, encapsulates the quandary of countless migrant workers: “Of course there was a desire to leave and throw it all away, but how? Our passports were with the landowner, and we had no money. If we left, then all of our work would be for nothing. And without money, how would we even get back home from there?”

Philip Morris, which bought one thousand five hundred tons of tobacco leaf from Kazakh farmers last year, has pledged to end the exploitation of workers by implementing a number of changes. According to a Philip Morris spokesman, the company had already banned purchases of tobacco made using child labor, and adherence to the policy had curtailed abuses at Kazakh farms. Going forward, the company will require employers to write contracts with their workers, establish regular wages, and end passport confiscation. Philip Morris also says it will work with NGOs and the government of Kazakhstan to provide schooling for migrant children, and use third-party monitoring to insure that farmers comply with labor guidelines. “No one should work in unsafe or unlawful conditions and we are committed to working to prevent child labor, forced labor and other labor abuses in the tobacco supply chain,” said the tobacco company in a statement.

Copyright 2010 Rhoda Feng


Rhoda Feng has contributed to The New Islander and Gadfly magazine. Her interview with Joyce Carol Oates recently appeared The Oxonian Review.

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