As I have said repeatedly, without holding western corporations legally responsible for what happens in their supply chains, massive global exploitation will continue. Human Rights Watch has a new report on out on child labor in Indonesian tobacco fields, noting that the profits from this labor go straight to big tobacco companies. The impact on the kids is awful:
Half the children interviewed reported nausea, vomiting, headaches, or dizziness, all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning from absorbing nicotine through their skin. The long-term effects have not been studied, but research on smoking suggests that nicotine exposure during childhood and adolescence may affect brain development.
Thirteen-year-old “Ayu” said she vomits every year while harvesting tobacco on farms in her village near Garut, West Java: “I was throwing up when I was so tired from harvesting and carrying the [tobacco] leaf. I threw up so many times.”
Many child tobacco workers said they mixed and applied pesticides and other chemicals. Pesticide exposure has been associated with long-term and chronic health effects, including respiratory problems, cancer, depression, neurologic deficits, and reproductive health problems. “Argo,” a 15-year-old worker in Pamekasan, East Java, said he felt suddenly ill when applying a pesticide to his family’s farm: “Once I was vomiting. It was when it was planting time, and I didn’t use the mask, and the smell was so strong, I started throwing up.” Some children were also exposed to pesticides when other workers applied chemicals in the fields where they were working, or in nearby fields.
Who specifically benefits?
The largest companies operating in Indonesia include three Indonesian tobacco product manufacturers – PT Djarum, PT Gudang Garam Tbk, and PT Nojorono Tobacco International – and two companies owned by multinational tobacco companies – PT Bentoel Internasional Investama, owned by British American Tobacco, and PT Hanjaya Mandala Sampoerna Tbk, owned by Philip Morris International. Other Indonesian and multinational companies also purchase tobacco grown in Indonesia.
Obviously it’s more than just American companies, but we should have control over how American companies operate abroad and setting standards over products imported into the United States. We have more levers over these processes than we think, it’s just that policymakers choose not to use them. As the recent Obama administration act closing the slave labor loophole in the 1930 Tariff Act shows though, it is actually possible to move in the right direction. We need much more of this. Human Rights Watch has also investigated child labor in American tobacco fields, so this is something that needs to start at home. In these cases, it seems to me that Philip Morris must be held responsible for violating child labor law and prosecuted to the full extent of the law (which given regulatory capture would be a not all that severe fine most likely) for any child labor in their supply chains. If they don’t want the legal problems, they can work with their suppliers to make sure no child labor is used. It requires many more sticks than carrots, but it certainly can be done.