It’s bad enough that cigarettes are deadly for those who choose to smoke, but workers in the tobacco industry can be equally at risk. A report called Hellish Work released by Human Rights Watch has revealed 72 cases of children as young as 10 working 12-hour days in Kazakhstan tobacco fields for Philip Morris International, a job with particular risks for child workers, warn the authors of Hellish Work. Nicotine absorbed through the skin is a serious health issue. Those handling tobacco leaves can absorb as much nicotine daily as they would get by smoking 36 cigarettes – a staggering dose for children.
Human Rights Watch is an international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights. Its 115-page report Hellish Work documents how some employers confiscated migrant tobacco workers’ passports, failed to provide them with written contracts, did not pay regular wages, cheated them of earnings, and required them to work excessively long hours. But it was the disclosure of the conditions suffered by children working in the tobacco fields that was most disturbing. According to the report:
“Children’s still-developing bodies are more vulnerable than adults’ bodies to the effects of tobacco and pesticide exposure. Short-term effects include nausea, headaches, vomiting and dizziness; brain damage and cancer are among the longterm effects.”
The children and their families are mostly seasonal contract workers. This is not an enviable status, Human Rights Watch makes clear. They are often underpaid and in some cases not paid at all; many live in substandard housing; some are also are exposed to fertilizers and pesticides and, for lack of accessible clean water, end up drinking from polluted irrigation channels. Some must work in violation of basic safety rules, required to use sharp-edged hoes even if they lack shoes or have only open-toed footwear.
Philip Morris International – a global organization whose cigarette revenues last year, including for its Marlboro brands, topped $25 billion – issued a statement in response to the Hellish Work report saying it was “grateful” to Human Rights Watch for bringing these cases to its attention. The company promised to improve monitoring and training.
But its corporate website already has an entire page devoted to the subject of child labour, complete with a fairly broad disclaimer of their responsibility. For example:
“At Philip Morris International, we have a child and forced labor policy, which sets a minimum age and forbids the use of forced labor in all our facilities around the world.
“However, child labor is a worldwide problem. It is impossible to know exactly how many children work in tobacco farming. Unfortunately, some major tobacco growing countries may count among those with child labor records. We are committed to funding programs around the globe, in cooperation with governments, NGOs, and other stakeholders, to eradicate child labor in tobacco growing communities.”
Despite cigarette tax hikes, smoking bans, health concerns and growing anti-smoking social stigma that have cut demand for tobacco products worldwide, Philip Morris International’s CEO Louis Camilleri told Reuters that he was forecasting 2010 earnings per share will rise as much as 17% thanks to cigarette sales in “emerging markets”.
Poor Louis in fact had to make do with a reduced personal compensation package last year of just $24.5 million, a whopping 34% less than what he earned during the previous year.
But maybe he’ll get back into that Marlboro Man saddle by the end of 2010. Last week, Bloomberg Business Week reported that Philip Morris had just posted a 28% gain in second-quarter profits after raising cigarette prices in countries like Australia and Mexico.
No doubt the money the company is saving by not paying those young migrant workers in Kazakhstan has helped to create those gains.
Read more about the Human Rights Watch report called Hellish Work.
NEWS UPDATE: Philip Morris Ordered to Pay Oregon Millions in Lawsuit
December 3, 2011: PORTLAND, Oregon — Tobacco company Philip Morris USA Inc. must pay the state of Oregon 60% of a $79.5 million award in a long-running lawsuit filed by the family of former smoker Jesse Williams, a janitor who had died two years earlier of lung cancer. After years of appeals, Philip Morris paid the family in 2009, according to the state Supreme Court’s decision. The payment, it said, was more than $61 million, which includes economic damages, the 40% share of punitive damages, interest and costs.
Under Oregon law, 60% of punitive damage awards must go to a state fund to compensate crime victims. Philip Morris paid the family its share of the judgment but contested the requirement to pay the state.