Child labour turning over a new tobacco leaf

23Jun 2016
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
Child labour turning over a new tobacco leaf

Forced child labour in Switzerland sounds impossible. Yet in April 2013, the Swiss Government issued an official apology for the historical practice of ‘verdingkinder’, or contract children, a scourge that was common until the 1950s and still practised as late as the 1960s.

This social aberration saw tens of thousands of children of single mothers, children of the poor and ‘gypsies’ forcibly removed from their families and transported as labourers to rural areas of Switzerland.

In addition to crude economic exploitation and educational deprivation, these forced child labourers were often subjected to violence and sexual abuse.

The economic driver of this inhuman treatment was the demand for cheap, vulnerable and exploitable labour on Switzerland’s un-mechanised farms. Until the 1960s rural Switzerland was relatively poor and child indentured labour provided a vital factor of production.

Today, child labour is a contested concept and social phenomenon globally, but is broadly understood as any work that deprives children of schooling, harms their mental, physical, social or moral development or dignity. In its most extreme form, child labour is performed through slavery and human trafficking.

Although declining in numbers, child labour remains widespread in the developing world. The International Labour Organisation estimates that some 168 million children between the ages of 5-17 work under conditions that are considered illegal, hazardous, or extremely exploitative. Of these, over half live in Asia and the Pacific.

India holds the dubious distinction of more children in child labour than any other country. A further 30 percent of child labourers are to be found in Africa with Latin America accounting for another 7 percent.

While examples of sweat shop child labour engaged in the manufacture of designer clothing and branded bling wear are well-publicised, the bulk of child labour occurs in the agriculture, fishing, hunting and forestry sectors. Mining, particularly artisanal mining and domestic service, account for the majority of the balance.

Within the agriculture sector, child labour has been found in the harvesting of bananas, cotton, cut flowers, oranges, cocoa, tea, coffee, sugarcane and spices and in the breeding of cattle. Yet it is child labour in the African tobacco growing sector that has attracted most scrutiny and criticism.

Tobacco growing, cultivation and harvesting is labour intensive and in some African countries involves the exploitation of children. This is a completely unacceptable practice and must be eradicated. The question is whether child labour is endemic and intrinsic to tobacco growing, or whether with appropriate programmes, it can be eliminated.

Established in 2001, the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Foundation (ECLT) operates on the basis of multi-stakeholder partnerships that recognise the broader economic, social, cultural and gender-based drivers of child labour in tobacco and construct programmes to tackle it, root and stock.

Its members have pledged to uphold robust policy on child labour, minimum requirements on tackling child labour, and implementation consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The International Labour Organisation has announced on its website that it has signed an agreement with the ECLT Foundation to develop global guidance on hazardous child labour and occupational safety and health in tobacco growing, and to support stronger social dialogue in three of the countries where ECLT operates projects namely Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda.

While acknowledging that the use of child labour in tobacco growing is socially and culturally deeply embedded as a family practice in Africa, the root driver of child labour is poverty.

Given the multifaceted nature of child labour on the continent, the Foundation has developed five core thrusts to tackle child labour in tobacco.

ECLT has trained local community workers to identify child labour practices so that the most vulnerable can be withdrawn from servitude.

Educational support
ECLT works with its partners to provide educational opportunities such as bursaries and facilities, vocational training, school-feeding programmes, counselling and support.

In keeping with the universal declaration of the rights of the child, the ECLT conducts awareness programmes through workshops, school parliaments, drama, parent teacher programmes and radio.

Strengthening communities
The ECLT helps empower African villages to fully engage with local, regional and national governments to ensure better roads, water, health, and sanitation and community safety.

The Foundation works with other private sector and volunteer organisations at the community level to help ensure that all play a responsible role in national and international agricultural supply chains.

Finally and crucially, the ECLT works to tackle local poverty through a range of programmes, initiatives and schemes.
These include microloans, (particularly for mothers), village savings and loans support for mutual aid groups, the provision of model farm schools for agricultural practice and livestock keeping, conservation farming as well as health and safety training.

Is the ECLT anything more than a leaf covering the soft underbelly of a sector under pressure from unique levels of control, regulation and scrutiny?

Available information indicate that tobacco companies themselves have initiated a code of best practice called agricultural labour practices (ALP) establishing the conditions under which tobacco is to be produced in order to be compliant with their purchasing requirements.

The ALP requirements include: no child labour, no forced labour, a safe work environment and a fair income and work hours.

But in the final analysis, perhaps that question could be asked of the 22,000 children withdrawn from labouring in the tobacco sector, or the 105,000 farmers, teachers and community leaders who have been trained to be aware of the hazards of child labour.

Or perhaps speak to any of the 13,500 Malawian families who received financial support and stopped using child labour, or the 7,800 Tanzanian children monitored to remain in school and out of child labour through the work of the ECLT.

All of these ‘best practices’ are now being shared among the tobacco growing countries of Africa and could be of value to other agricultural sectors serious about eradicating child labour.