Zim children drop out of school to work on tobacco farms

HARARE - Children in tobacco-growing regions are dropping out of school during the growing seasons to supply labour for planting and harvesting, a damning human rights report has revealed.

This comes as the employment of children between the ages of 12 and 16 remains prevalent in Zimbabwe’s tobacco growing regions amid high poverty levels in rural areas.

Zimbabwe is the world’s sixth-largest tobacco producer, and the crop is the country’s most valuable export commodity, generating $933 million in 2016.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) research conducted between 2016 and 2017 into conditions on tobacco farms in Zimbabwe revealed an industry tainted by child labour and confronted by other serious human rights problems.

“Many children under 18 work in hazardous conditions on tobacco farms in Zimbabwe, often performing tasks that threaten their health and safety or interfere with their education.

“Child labour and other human rights abuses on tobacco farms in Zimbabwe tarnish the tobacco industry’s contributions to the country’s economic growth and improved livelihoods,” HRW said.

“HRW urges Zimbabwean authorities and tobacco companies to take urgent steps to end child labour and address the human rights abuses faced by small-scale farmers and hired workers sustaining the tobacco industry.”

The report — based on extensive field research and interviews with 64 small-scale tobacco farmers as well as 61 hired workers on tobacco farms in the largest tobacco-growing provinces in Zimbabwe —found several serious human rights problems in the tobacco sector.

In the report, a Grade 5 teacher only identified as Joseph in Mashonaland West, said one-quarter of his 43 students worked on tobacco farms.

“It causes a lot of absenteeism,” he said.

“You find out of 63 days of the term, a child is coming 15 to 24 days only,” he said.

The report documents how children work in hazardous conditions, performing tasks that threaten their health and safety or interfere with their education.

“Child workers are exposed to nicotine and toxic pesticides, and many suffer symptoms consistent with nicotine poisoning from handling tobacco leaves.

“Adults working on tobacco farms in Zimbabwe also face serious health risks and labour abuses,” the report said.

The report highlights a 50-year-old small-scale tobacco farmer in Manicaland indentified as Panashe, and one of 125 people involved in tobacco production interviewed for the report.

Panashe supported his family with earnings from cultivating a half hectare of tobacco. In 2016, he did not make any profit.

“Last year, we had the problem of hail, and we failed to get anything,” he said.

Without any earnings from the previous season, Panashe said he was unable to pay workers to help on his farm: “We face the problem of labour. In tobacco, you cannot work alone …. I cannot manage to hire workers because I don’t have anything.”

As a result, he relied on help from his 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old niece.

“They do everything,” he said. “They are overworked.”


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