The climate of Zimbabwe’s tobacco farms breeds many levels of human rights abuses, including the prolific use of child labor. This results in serious health concerns for children, lack of access to education, unjust wages for hired workers, and neglected health and safety precautions for farmers.
According to research conducted by Human Rights Watch, it is estimated that over half of small-scale tobacco farmers hire or use child laborers. Due to inconsistent earning instigated by the insecure state of the economy in Zimbabwe and harsh climate changes, many tobacco farmers are unable to hire formal workers. Therefore, many farmers seek help from their children on the farms, which then hinders the children’s opportunities to go to school, increasing absenteeism and making it difficult to complete the necessary schoolwork. In an interview by Human Rights Watch, a fifth-grade teacher from one of the Zimbabwean provinces with the highest concentration of Tobacco farmers reported that one-quarter of his 43 students worked on tobacco farms, causing “a lot of absenteeism [as] you find out of 63 days of the term, a child is coming 15 to 24 days only,” he said.
Additionally, even workers at large-scale tobacco farms were forced to work overtime without compensation. They were even denied their wages and went weeks or months without pay, further contributing to levels of impoverishment. Perhaps due to the need to work, or the desperation on the part of the tobacco farms, health and safety precautions are largely neglected, which is extremely problematic when handling tobacco due to the nicotine content and the heavy use of pesticides. Many workers reported to Human Rights Watch that they often felt headaches and dizziness while working in the fields, which can be attributed to acute nicotine poisoning from handling the plants as it seeps through the skin and into the bloodstream. Furthermore, many farmers described feelings of chest pain and blurred vision while using pesticides without adequate protective equipment. Pesticide exposure also causes chronic health problems including respiratory problems, cancer, depression, neurological deficits, and reproductive health problems. While the negative effects of exposure to nicotine and pesticides are tremendously harmful to adult workers, the harmful consequences are compounded for children due to their size and the fact that they have not built up as much of a nicotine tolerance as adults. Additionally, since children’s brains and bodies are still developing, they are even more vulnerable.
Despite the very blatant consequences of exposure to nicotine and pesticides, farmers report that neither government officials nor tobacco company representatives informed them of the causes and symptoms of nicotine poisoning nor ways they can avoid it. The government and companies also failed to provide the necessary protective equipment to avoid such ailments which most tobacco farms lack the means to procure.
In the case of tobacco farms in Zimbabwe, the human rights violations appear to stem from three main issues: widespread poverty, lack of accountability and transparency, and the reluctance of the government to change the status quo.
In 2011, nearly 75 percent of people in Zimbabwe lived below the national poverty line. During President Mugabe’s last years in office, there was a severe cash shortage which crippled the economy. So, Zimbabwe’s Central Bank imposed limits on cash withdrawals and introduced bond notes to act as a form of local currency. However, this made many people, particularly business people and farmers very fearful of inflation and further economic deterioration. These fears, alongside impoverishment, make it nearly impossible for all tobacco farmers in Zimbabwe to employ full-time workers who are of age and ensure they are paid fairly and not exposed to working conditions that could harm their health. According to research conducted by Human Rights Watch, farm-owners voiced that the reason children work on tobacco farms is due to poverty, demonstrating that this is the core of the crisis.
While impoverishment can explain a lot of why human rights violations persist on tobacco farms in Zimbabwe, the nature of the farming system also compounds the issue. In 2000, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) completely changed the nature of tobacco production in Zimbabwe by seizing thousands of large-scale commercial farms owned by white farmers and redistributing the land to formerly landless black Zimbabweans. This rapidly increased the number of tobacco growers from around 8,500 in 2000 to over 73,000 in 2016. However, this “fast track” land reform program has not had overwhelmingly positive results. Before the reform, commercial farmers drove economic growth in the country by employing a third of the workforce in the country and generating half of Zimbabwe’s exports. When their land was split into smaller plots and redistributed, the nature of the farming economy changed drastically. With more farmers with less investment potential, the infrastructure and technologies in the agricultural industry collapsed. Small landowners have limited access to inputs such as machinery, equipment, infrastructure, seeds, fertilizers, and chemicals, meaning the crops are more susceptible to the harmful effects of weather conditions and it takes more for them to bounce back. This could be one of the factors leading to the impoverishment of farmers which makes it difficult to practice just hiring and employment practices. The volatility of income due to climate change also makes it difficult to pay for school fees for the children of farmers, adding to the cycle of poverty. Since the land reform in 2001 was so rapid, public agencies did not have the capacity to meet the demand for agricultural knowledge services such as research on market information. This decreased accountability and verifiability within the industry. Fundamentally, the land reform compounded poverty in Zimbabwe which today adds to farms’ incapacity to follow practices that ensure human rights while simultaneously decreasing the ability of the government to monitor and account for these violations, meaning they have gone untreated for a long time.
As a key component of Zimbabwe’s economy, there is little incentive for the government to impose any changes. In 2016, Zimbabwe’s tobacco industry generated US$933.7 million, making it the country’s most valuable export. With the crippled economy left by former President Mugabe, the new leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has leveraged the tobacco industry and made it a pillar in the Zimbabwean authorities’ efforts to revive the economy. Therefore, as long as the industry is turning such significant profits, it would appear that addressing human rights violations is on the backburner.
The Zimbabwean government has made great strides in creating a framework that should protect human rights violations in the workplace and children’s rights to education. In 2014, Zimbabwe reworked their labor law and regulations for the agricultural sector, stipulating that “agricultural workers should not exceed 208 hours of worker per month, and are required to pay double the employee’s current wage for overtime worked on a day off, and one and a half times the employee’s current wage for time worked in excess of the ordinary monthly hours of work,” according to Human Rights Watch. However, as per the conditions of the tobacco industry in Zimbabwe outlined above, these standards are evidently not being upheld.
Zimbabwe has also committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), meaning they are expected to ensure all children in Zimbabwe receive free, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education by 2030. However, many families in the country still pay fees for their children to go to public school. Additionally, children are only required to attend school until their 12. Meanwhile, the minimum working age is 16, which is one factor leading to the prolific use of child laborers.
International tobacco companies that purchase their tobacco from farms in Zimbabwe, including British American Tobacco and Alliance One International, have policies that prohibit children from working directly with green tobacco. However, this policy does not prevent children from all contact with tobacco such as dealing with dried tobacco which still leads to respiratory problems including coughing, sneezing, difficulty breathing, and tightness of chest. Additionally, while these companies claim they have extensive human rights due diligence policies, small-scale farmers and hired workers on some large-scale tobacco farms continue to face abuses outlined in these policies, demonstrating that international companies are not putting enough effort to ensure the prevention of human rights abuses on every level of the supply chain.
Fundamentally, the government of Zimbabwe and international tobacco companies must address the child labor and human rights abuses plaguing Zimbabwe’s tobacco sector. For the government, the list of dangerous occupations must be revised to include tobacco farming due to the harmful effects of nicotine exposure, particularly for children. However, we have seen that despite protective government policies, the problem lies with enforcement. Therefore, the government needs to increase transparency and accountability within the industry by rigorously investigating and monitoring child labor and human rights violations on tobacco farms. By developing a more well-rounded understanding of the problem at hand, the government can produce targeted campaigns to remedy individual human rights violations instead of producing seemingly meaningless frameworks that lack impact.
Another interesting experiment the government could try is changing the timing or system for school fees. If they find it impossible to abolish them altogether (although this should be part of the country’s long-term plan), they need to be tailored to the seasonality of the agricultural industry. Currently, school fees are due during the leanest months for tobacco farmers, meaning many cannot afford to pay them. Therefore, by changing the time they’re due or spreading out the payments, this issue may be remedied. A more extreme solution could also be to create an income-smoothing system so that tobacco farmers’ livelihood could be less volatile. Although, this would require more in-depth economic analysis to determine if it should or should not be implemented.
The Ministry of Health and Childcare needs to effectively train and educate tobacco farmers on the health risks associated with tobacco farming. This could incentivize farmers to prioritize investing in protective equipment which would improve the quality of life of all workers. If this still proves impossible due to lack of investment capacity, the government of Zimbabwe needs to step in and supply these farms with the equipment. In the long-run, this could improve productivity because workers will be healthier, potentially further benefiting the national economy.
Organizations who purchase tobacco from Zimbabwe must enforce their policies more effectively and make sure that their policies cover every aspect of the supply chain. Like the government, they need to increase their knowledge of the farms they purchase from through conducting regular and rigorous monitoring.