Human Rights Watch Exposes Child Labor in Kazakhstan

For years, various NGOs and other stakeholders in the apparel industry have been working to abolish forced child labor in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan.

Now, a new study from Human Rights Watch has documented 72 cases of child labor, ranging in ages from 10 to 17, on tobacco farms in neighboring Kazakhstan.

The 115-page report, called Hellish Work, reveals dismal conditions on Kazakh farms where as many as 1 million migrant workers are exploited to cultivate, harvest and dry tobacco. It's tough, physical labor, and because nicotine can be absorbed through the skin when tobacco leaves are handled, it's also notoriously unhealthy. In fact, the report says that in one day, laborers can absorb nicotine amounts equivalent to smoking 36 cigarettes. As you might expect, children are especially vulnerable to the deleterious effects of this level of nicotine.

Philip Morris Kazakhstan, a subsidiary of Philip Morris International, is the sole purchaser of the tobacco harvested from these particular farms. The company uses this tobacco for its local brands in central Asia, Russia and Ukraine.

And, to its credit, Philip Morris has already responded to the HRW report.

A spokesman from Philip Morris told the New York Times that the company has been working for years to reduce abusive practices at Kazakh tobacco farms, but that it now recognizes that it must "step up" its efforts to eliminate child labor. Philip Morris says it will start to:

use third-party monitoring,

improve training and internal controls, and

require that farmers have written contracts with all of their workers.

The company also made a commitment to ensure that training for Philip Morris Kazakhstan staff covers child labor, forced labor, illegal passport retention, and the need to make sure children of migrant workers have access to education.

Of course, the government of Kazakhstan also needs to provide monitoring and enforcement.

"Kazakhstan has an obligation under international law to protect all victims of abuse, irrespective of the victim's migration status or contractual status," says Jane Buchanan, senior researcher in the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "It's time for the government to stop acting as if migrant workers don't have rights and take decisive action against abusive employers."

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