Although the link between smoking cigarettes and certain cancers is common knowledge, it hasn’t deterred tobacco companies from raking in huge profits. Altria Group, the largest U.S. tobacco company and parent ofUSA, reported first-quarter profits of $813 million – up from $224 million a year earlier. The company also says it shipped 34.1 billion cigarettes in the first quarter of 2010.
Helping to bring in those profits: forced and child labor.
Philip Morris International buys about 600,000 tons of tobacco leaf from suppliers and farmers in more than 30 countries annually – including Kazakhstan. Many migrant tobacco workers there have been cheated and exploited, and some trapped into forced labor, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.
The 115-page Human Rights Watch report, "Hellish Work: Exploitation of Migrant Tobacco Workers in Kazakhstan," documents how employers confiscated migrant workers' passports preventing them from leaving, failed to provide them with written contracts, did not pay regular wages, cheated them of earnings, and required them to work excessively long hours without clean drinking water or other sanitary facilities. The international human-rights group also documented frequent use of child labor, with children as young as 10 years of age.
In fact, Human Rights Watch documented 72 cases of children working in tobacco the tobacco industry in 2009. Experts consider tobacco farming one of the worst forms of child labor since children face particular risks associated with the handling of tobacco leaves and exposure to pesticides. In addition, children who worked with their families on tobacco farms typically missed several months of school each year.
Work was not confined to the farms. The group’s research also reveals that families were forced to perform other unrelated duties, like doing laundry and painting employers homes without pay.
"Many of these tobacco workers - adults and children alike - came to Kazakhstan and found themselves in virtual bondage," said Jane Buchanan, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. "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."
Philip Morris International responded to the Human Rights Watch report in a press release stating, “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.”
Philip Morris says it has taken immediate steps to strengthen the application of its existing policies and practices on child labor and to address the other areas of concern raised in the report, including strengthening contractual obligations for farmers to prohibit certain conduct and establishing standards of treatment of the workers.
Both Philip Morris International and Philip Morris Kazakhstan have said they will work with the government of Kazakhstan to address access to schools for migrant children and contribute to summer programs for children as alternatives to working. Philip Morris International has also hired a third-party expert organization to monitor labor practices in Kazakhstan and other Philip Morris International markets.