If you ever needed a reason to quit smoking, here's one: child labor and forced labor make your cigarettes. A newly released report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) has unleashed a bombshell of accusations against Philip Morris Kazahkstan, a wholly owned subsidiary of Philip Morris International, the company behind Marlboro, L&M, Chesterfield, and Bond Street: the farmers that harvest their tobacco exploit workers and children.
Many migrant laborers come to Kazakhstan from surrounding countries in search of better opportunities. Instead, they find themselves indebted to the farmers that employ them, their passports and identification papers confiscated, and all for essentially nothing; most workers make only a few hundred dollars for more than six months of work.
Workers typically have to bring their children to the fields with them to help the families earn more money. According to one woman, children as young as 10 were seen slaving away day after day in the tobacco fields. While the use of child labor is not uncommon in Central Asia, working in tobacco fields can be particularly hazardous to one's health, especially for children who are more susceptible to the harsh effects of nicotine exposure. Laborers often suffer from green tobacco sickness, in which nicotine is absorbed through the skin — amounting to the equivalent of smoking 36 cigarettes — leading to a laundry list of grisly symptoms.
Working conditions in the farms are also particularly dismal; there is no easy access to fresh, clean water, and workers must drink from irrigation channels saturated with pesticides. Laborers, often poor and unable to purchase safe working attire, plow the fields with sharp hoes while wearing open-toed shoes.
When given an advance copy of the report, Philip Morris came out decidedly against the use of forced labor and child labor and has already vowed to make changes in their contracts with the farmers they employ in Kazakhstan. For starters, they will require farmers to pay their workers on an hourly basis, rather than by the amount of tobacco harvested, which pressures families to bring their children to the fields to provide more helping hands. Furthermore, the company plans to hire monitors to make sure the farms are in compliance with the already-established child labor laws. A good start, I'd say.
But yes, you read that right. The company already has child labor laws in place, but didn't seem to really care about enforcing them. It takes a 115-page report to get the company to actually take a stance. A Philip Morris spokesman, Peter Nixon, says the company was "appreciative" of the report for exposing the human rights violations going on behind their backs. But shouldn't the company have preempted the report by checking in on labor conditions themselves?
Though the tobacco harvested in Kazakhstan's fields does not go into cigarettes sold in America, next time you think about lighting up, consider, for a quick second, where your nicotine fix is coming from.