Child Labour on Tobacco Plantations in Indonesia

On 05.24.2016 the international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report investigating the occurrence of child labour in tobacco plantations in Indonesia. More than 130 affected children were interviewed. It is evident from the report and investigation undertaken by HRW that more than one thousand children are affected by child labour and work under unhealthy conditions, predominantly to support their families financially. Many of them are already sick and suffering from the damage of nicotine poisoning or pesticides.

Indonesia has over 500,000 tobacco plantations and is one of the largest tobacco manufacturers in the world, the three regions of East Java, Central Java and West Nusa Tenggara deliver 90% of tobacco production in the country.

According to the study by HRW, children work mainly without protective clothing and in significant heat. The nicotine is taken in directly through their skin from the leaves of tobacco plants. The nicotine poisons the children causing nausea, vomiting, dizziness and /or headache. As the children are still developing physically, they are particularly vulnerable and further resultant damages may arise. As the children grow up they may be more susceptible to developing mental disorders, memory loss or cognitive problems. Some of the children work with dangerous pesticides, which can lead to cancer, chronic illnesses and depression and significantly affects the development of children.

Although there is a compulsory education in Indonesia up to the age of 15 years, in recent years many children have been supporting their parents on the plantations and are unable to go to lessons. Many families can not afford schooling for their children. Although there are public schools free of charge, the teaching materials and school uniforms must be bought and often make school unaffordable.

Indonesia is among the countries that prohibits harmful work for children. But the definitions are very inaccurate, they do not adequately protect children from exploitation. Although multinational companies such as PT Bentoel Internasional Investama (Bentoel, subsidiary of British American Tobacco BAT), and PT Hanjaya Mandala Sampoerna (subsidiary of Philip Morris International) indicate they purchase tobacco from suppliers, in accordance with ILO, this does not ensure that the companies are eliminating child labour from their supply chains. The companies purchase the tobacco partly on the public market and may not understand the exact supply chain.

According to Human Rights Watch’s analysis the second largest tobacco producer in the world, Brazil, provides a good example of clear and strict prohibitions and improved safety measures for work on tobacco plantations. Violations here bring about harsh penalties.

HRW demands that the Government of Indonesia monitors the work better and more directly to ensure that tobacco plantations are not profiting from child labour. In addition, better information should be provided regarding the damage caused by chemicals. Tobacco companies carry a great responsibility and must ensure they check their suppliers carefully.

The French insurer Axa SA has announced it will sever its financial relations with the tobacco industry, in part due to the”tragic” and unacceptable situation of many people involved in tobacco production. For the largest insurance company in the country this divestment represents two billion USD in capital, including shares of Philip Morris International Inc. and British American Tobacco Plc.

An increasing number of investors have excluded tobacco companies due to ethical concerns.1.

The study by Human Rights Watch, “The Harvest is in My Blood” can be found in full here.

  1., 5/23/2016, accessed on 25.05.2016 []