Child labor, unfair prices and poverty earnings characterize the tobacco growing sector.

For over 100 years cigarette manufacturers and leaf buying companies have exploited farmers to obtain profits from below-cost leaf, unpaid child labor and low-cost and bonded adult laborers. Today, tobacco farmers continue to face risks in their jobs. Tobacco is an input-intensive crop, requiring seeds, seedbeds, fertilizer and pesticide applications, and access to credit to cover such input costs. Tobacco companies take advantage of this credit opportunity by selling agricultural chemicals and other inputs at above-market rates on loan. The companies, through loan arrangements, trap farmers into a cycle of debt. Oftentimes, debt servitude continues year after year and intensifies when farmers experience a bad harvest due to uncertain rains and other climate change issues.

The health risks of tobacco growing threaten tobacco household members. Parents who are forced to send children to fields instead of schools witness an increase in hunger, stunted growth and school dropout rates among children.



Tobacco workers face many trials, including widespread health concerns, debt bondage, price collusion by tobacco companies, and child labor.

During visits to more than thirty tobacco farms in Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, India, Bolivia and Argentina in 1997-2011, Marty Otañez, assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, witnessed activities employed by the tobacco industry that obstruct tobacco control and increase economic marginalization. Many kids and adults on tobacco farms wake up and go to sleep hungry.

Tobacco does not provide a sustainable livelihood for families in many countries, as it has caused widespread health concerns, debt bondage, high input costs, high labor costs (leading to child labor), and declining profitability for individuals who grow tobacco every year. In Malawi, tobacco companies have been taking advantage of credit opportunities by selling agricultural chemicals and other inputs at above-market rates on loan. The companies, through these loan arrangements, then trap farmers into a cycle of debt.

Tobacco producers and their families suffer from nutritional deficiencies as tobacco, instead of food, occupies scarce land. Exposure to tobacco dust among family members that are forced to store tobacco leaves inside their homes contributes to extreme coughing and other negative respiratory effects.

When adults and children cut and bundle tobacco leaves they are put at a risk of absorbing pesticides and/or nicotine from the tobacco leaves through their skin. Nicotine poisoning is also called Green tobacco sickness, and can cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, and fluctuations in blood pressure or heart rate. Some workers are given the task of applying pesticide chemicals with their bare hands, and this exposure to toxic agricultural chemicals intensifies the poor health of tobacco families..

In Malawi, farm owners and tobacco companies threaten tobacco workers with dismissal if they join a union, and tobacco companies are unwilling to work with unions on bargaining agreements. These threats weaken the power and voice of tobacco workers, and keep them from demanding the working conditions and prices that they need.

Tobacco companies collude over prices and downgrade (assign a lower quality to) leaf, thereby forcing farmers to accept a lower price for their leaf. With uncertain and falling leaf prices benefiting the corporate bottom-line, many farmers receive only one dollar or less for every kilogram of leaf, which doesn’t come close to covering production costs. Low prices severely limits a farmer’s ability to break free from the cycle of debt servitude so that he can achieve economic security and food sovereignty.

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Tackling the problems in the tobacco sector requires replacing unsustainable tobacco production with healthy food systems and strengthening collective action among tenant farmers.

ILRF has two priorities in changing the world’s tobacco farming environment to ensure that farmers can live healthier lives without using child labor: Replacing unsustainable tobacco production with healthy food systems, and strengthening collective action among tenant farmers.

Exploitative tobacco farming practices can be reduced as tobacco farmers and farm workers contribute to the passage and enforcement of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). ILRF is working to help guide the implementation of the FCTC in a way that will help farmers transition into sustainable livelihoods. Articles 17 and 18 of the FCTC identify the necessity of promoting economically viable alternatives for tobacco workers and growers, and to provide protection for the health of those involved in tobacco production.

In addition, FCTC Article 5.3 articulates a need to protect tobacco control policies from the interference of the tobacco industry. Extending this protection to farmers and farm workers who are key elements in tobacco supply chains provides an essential component allowing farmers to exert greater control over production practices while minimizing the influence of tobacco industry initiatives meant to disrupt tobacco control.

Strengthening the collective voice of tobacco workers is essential for finding the right solutions to the problems of child labor and labor bondage. ILRF works with the the Tobacco and Allied Worker’s Union of Malawi (TOAWUM) which has 25,140 registered workers in its organization, and it keeps growing. Currently, leaf companies are still unwilling to negotiate with any tobacco union in Malawi, but the strength of the union cannot be ignored for much longer.

The Government of Malawi (GOM) has failed to provide the necessary protections for tobacco workers. In 1995, the GOM drafted the Tenancy Labour Bill to provide protections for laborers in the tobacco growing sector. The Tenancy Bill, when passed, would provide protections against poverty earnings and harsh working conditions. The Tenancy Bill provides farm workers access to the adjudication of disputes between tenants and landlords, enforces contracts between workers and employers, and requires that employers provide certain essential benefits to workers, including access to food, clean drinking water, accommodations, and medical resources. ILRF is working with partners in Malawi to help pass this bill and help tenant workers escape exploitation.

Child labor in the tobacco industry could be greatly improved by giving tobacco workers access to alternative, sustainable livelihoods, and by enforcing international labor standards, such as freedom from debt servitude, the right to collectively bargain, and the elimination of the worst forms of child labor. If farmers are able to collectively bargain without the fear of retribution, they will be empowered to create better livelihoods for themselves and their families.