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A Depressed Economy is Forcing Children in Zimbabwe to Work at Toxic Tobacco Farms

Zimbabwe tobaco farms
Sundrying tobacco leaves on Umvumvu estate (=hippos) North Umtali. Rhodesian Highlands CC Flickr: Mary Gillham Archive Project

Rampant child labor and hazardous working conditions in Zimbabwe’s tobacco farms are threatening to tarnish the country’s most valuable export commodity. Children as young as 11 are missing out on school and opting to work in toxic conditions in the tobacco farming industry.

In a report titled “A Bitter Harvest,” the Human Rights Watch (HRW) brought attention to the dangers and health hazards that adults, and now children, face as they work in the vast tobacco farms of Zimbabwe.

According to the report, workers of all ages are exposed to toxic levels of pesticide and nicotine as they handle the tobacco leaves, often suffering from symptoms consistent with pesticide and nicotine poisoning.

All of the child workers who were interviewed also reported having Green Tobacco Sickness at some point since they began work, which occurs from absorption of nicotine through the skin. This was coupled with labor abuse.

“Zimbabwe’s government needs to take urgent steps to protect tobacco workers,” said Margaret Wurth, co-author of the 105-page report and a HRW children’s rights researcher. “Companies sourcing tobacco from Zimbabwe should ensure that they are not buying crop produced by child workers sacrificing their health and education,” she added.

Though child labor is unacceptable, could the children in Zimbabwe be resigning to their fate in order to escape poverty? According to the report, poverty paired with Zimbabwe’s moribund economy may be to blame. This phenomenon has also been witnessed in West Africa, where young men, out of despair, risked their lives trying to escape to Europe, only to end up being auctioned as slaves in Libya.

The Human Rights Watch report included interviews with 14 children who worked on the tobacco farms. Davidzo, a 15-year-old schoolboy, dropped his studies to go work in the farms.

“The first day I started working, I vomited, I started to feel like I was spinning, and since then, I always have headaches and feel dizzy,” said Davidzo. Upon returning to school, his teachers punished him. “I was beaten…I was so disappointed because I was trying to make an effort to work to raise my school fees. I thought I was doing good for myself.”

Davidzo is not the only child that poverty has pushed away from school and to the farms.

“It causes a lot of absenteeism. You see right from the onset of the tobacco growing season these children start being absent. You find out of 63 days of the term, a child is coming 14 to 24 days only,” says Joseph, a grade 5 teacher in Mashonaland West, which is one of the major tobacco-growing provinces in Zimbabwe.

Many of the workers could not tell that they were getting acute poisoning, as they had no proper training on occupational health and safety, nor did they know how to use personal protective equipment. One 43-year-old farmer said, “You fall sick, but you don’t know what it is.”

The current law in Zimbabwe has set 16 as the minimum age a child may be employed and prohibits them from performing any “hazardous” work. When asked, the Zimbabwe labor ministry denied any knowledge of child labor in the tobacco farms.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s president who took over from Robert Mugabe in a military intervention in late 2017, pledged to revive the country’s economy and to prioritize agriculture. During Mugabe’s 30-year presidency, Zimbabwe’s economy hit rock bottom with poverty levels rising to 80 percent and unemployment rising to 95 percent.

In 2016, Zimbabwe’s tobacco industry generated $933 million, making it the nation’s most valuable export. Zimbabwe is also the worlds sixth largest producer of tobacco. With the country in such a distressed economic state, Zimbabwean adults and children are forced to accept any means of employment even if it means working in dangerous conditions.

 

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Alex Muiruri

Alex is a passionate writer born and raised in Kenya. He is professionally trained as a public health officer but loves writing more. When not writing, he enjoys reading, doing charity work and spending time with friends and family. He is also a crazy pianist!

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