IN as much as tobacco — a huge foreign currency earner — is one of Zimbabwe’s two most important crops alongside the staple crop maize, farmers, industry players and the government should not be gleefully making money at the expense of human life.
A recent report by Human Rights Watch, reveals that although tobacco is the country’s most valuable export commodity — generating US$933,7 million in 2016 and close to US$1 billion in 2017 — and is thus central to efforts to revive the economy, the industry is tainted by child labour and serious human rights abuses.
The report was compiled after extensive field research and interviews with 64 small-scale tobacco and 61 workers.
It found that many tobacco workers were suffering from headaches and dizziness — both symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, which happens when workers absorb nicotine through their skin while handling tobacco plants.
“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. Adults involved in tobacco production — both small-scale farmers and hired workers — face serious health and safety risks, but the government and tobacco companies are failing to ensure that workers have sufficient information, training, and equipment to protect themselves,” the report reads.
“Hired workers on some large-scale tobacco farms said they were pushed to work excessive hours without overtime compensation, denied their wages, and forced to go weeks or months without pay.”
In all the provinces where the research was conducted it was established that child labour was rife which can be attributed to growing levels of poverty.
This is despite the fact that the country’s laws law sets 16 as the minimum age for children to work in any sector and prohibits children under 18 from performing hazardous work. The report found that many of the child tobacco workers interviewed were exposed to pesticides while working on tobacco farms. Some children mixed, handled, or applied pesticides directly.
Pesticide exposure has been associated with long-term and chronic health effects including respiratory problems, cancer, depression, neurologic deficits, and reproductive health problems. HRW says children are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of toxic exposures as their brains and bodies are still developing.
The sad state of affairs in the industry calls on the government and farmers unions to intervene and stop the rot.
The government, working with the unions should ensure that farm labourers and others who handle tobacco are empowered with the required information and training to protect themselves.
Tobacco farmers should also receive information and training so that they do not compromise the health of their workers, as is the case at the moment.
If human life is compromised in the quest for the country to generate forex then the money generated can be equated to blood money.
It’s time to act.