Big Tobacco Profits from Kazakh Child Labor, Report Says

Source: IPS News

(IPS) – Hoping for better opportunities than they can find at home, many families from Kyrgyzstan travel to find work. Neighbouring Kazakhstan has the strongest economy in Central Asia, and tobacco farms attract workers fleeing Kyrgyzstan’s high unemployment.

Upon arriving at their new employers’ farms, however, many find hardship and exploitation instead of the advantages they’d hoped for, as a new report by Human Rights Watch reveals.

Kyrgyz workers travel to Kazakhstan for the nine-month growing and harvesting season, often with their children in tow. Those interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that they performed difficult physical labour far more hours per day than permitted under Kazakhstan’s labour laws, and received very little rest, often not getting time off for weekends or holidays.

Many migrants arrive at their destinations already behind, forced to pay the intermediaries who transported them.

They usually have little or no cash and will not receive payment until the end of the season, rendering them dependent on their employers for food, housing, and medical care – the cost of which will be deducted from their final wages.

Wages for the entire family are paid in a lump sum to the head of household, usually the family’s adult male.

This pay structure, along with the widespread requirement that workers hand their passports over to the landowner for the duration of the season, make it very difficult to leave an abusive situation, the report says.

“Of course there was a desire to leave and throw it all away, but how?” said one worker quoted in the report. “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?”

A few workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch experienced debt bondage in Kazakhstan. They were charged so much for their transport and living costs that they ended the season in debt to their employers, and were forced to work another season instead of receiving payment.

Others were made to do additional work for the landowners without pay.

Of particular concern to Human Rights Watch is the situation of children, who often work alongside their parents, missing school in the process. Tobacco cultivation is both physically demanding and potentially hazardous, and should not be performed by children under 18. Many parents expected children to work, but those that wished for their children to attend school did not always have access.

Forced labour and child labour are illegal under Kazakh as well as international law. Most migrant workers lack legal status in Kazakhstan, however, and are often unwilling to seek help from authorities.

Human Rights Watch believes that Phillip Morris International, the company that buys the tobacco grown in Kazakhstan, has an important role to play in ensuring that human rights standards are met.

“Philip Morris International and its subsidiaries have responsibilities to protect human rights under international standards of corporate responsibility as well as under national laws of the jurisdictions in which they operate,” Human Rights Watch’s Jane Buchanan told IPS.

“Recent experience in the apparel industry has brought to light an international consensus that companies have responsibilities for the labor practices that take place in their supply chains. No company should benefit or profit from exploitative practices at any point in the supply chain,” she said.

Representatives from Phillip Morris International met with Human Rights Watch to discuss the situation and have vowed to put a stop to abusive labor practices.

Human Rights Watch hopes the report will lead to national policy changes in Kazakhstan as well.

Among other changes, says Buchanan, the organisation advocates the creation of complaint mechanisms through which abused migrant workers can seek redress. The country must recognise migrant workers’ rights, says Buchanan, and make stronger efforts to prevent child labour, including by guaranteeing access to education for all school-age children in Kazakhstan.

“It’s time for the government to stop acting as if migrant workers don’t have rights and take decisive action against abusive employers,” she said.