The Zimbabwe Independent last week started serialising a summary of a research report by global human rights organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) on the tobacco growing sector in the country and attendant problems, particularly rampant human rights abuses and health risks involved. The report was released a fortnight ago. HRW investigates abuses, exposes the underlying reality, and pressurise those with power to respect rights and secure justice. It is an independent, international organisation that works as part of a vibrant movement to uphold human dignity and advance the cause of human rights for all.
Human Rights Watch found that work in tobacco farming in Zimbabwe poses significant risks to children’s health and safety, consistent with our findings in Kazakhstan, the United States, and Indonesia. Children working on tobacco farms in Zimbabwe are exposed to nicotine and toxic pesticides. They sometimes work very long hours handling green or dried tobacco leaves. The children interviewed for this report described sickness while working in tobacco farming, including specific symptoms associated with acute nicotine poisoning and pesticide exposure.
All of the child workers interviewed for this report said they had experienced at least one symptom consistent with acute nicotine poisoning—nausea, vomiting, headaches, or dizziness—while handling tobacco. For example, Davidzo, 15, started working on a neighbor’s tobacco farm with his grandmother when he was 14. He said he vomited the first time he worked with the crop in 2015.
“The first day I started working in tobacco, that’s when I vomited. I was feeling that I didn’t have power,” he said, describing how his body felt weak. Though he only vomited once, Davidzo said he often gets headaches while working with tobacco, especially when he carries the harvested leaves.
“I started to feel like I was spinning,” he said. “Since I started this [work], I always feel headaches and I feel dizzy. I feel like I don’t have the power to do anything.”
Children are particularly vulnerable to nicotine poisoning because of their size, and because they are less likely than adults to have developed a tolerance to nicotine. The long-term effects of nicotine absorption through the skin have not been studied, but public health research on smoking suggests that nicotine exposure during childhood and adolescence may have lasting consequences on brain development.
In addition, many of the child tobacco workers interviewed for this report said they were exposed to pesticides while working on tobacco farms. Some children mixed, handled, or applied pesticides directly. Others were exposed when pesticides were applied to areas close to where they were working, or by re-entering fields that had been very recently sprayed. Many children reported immediate illness after having contact with pesticides.
Sixteen-year-old Tanaka described how he got sick after he poured a chemical used to help color the tobacco leaves into a backpack sprayer and applied it to the crop.
“The smell affects me,” he said.
“It stays with me and only clears after I take a bath. It causes nausea, and you lose your appetite.”
He said he had experienced the feeling many times, most recently three days prior to his interview with Human Rights Watch. He said he wore overalls and a coat, but he had no gloves and nothing to cover his nose and mouth.
Rufaro and Zendaya, both 15, worked together on a tobacco farm in Mashonaland Central. Both girls said they had vomited after entering fields that had just been sprayed. “[It happens] when they spray the chemicals. It’s because of the smell. It’s so bad,” said Zendaya. “Most of the people, they vomit,” added Rufaro. “We were working in fields that had been sprayed. We were picking worms [off of the leaves]. They spray first, and then the worms come out, and then we go [into the field] and get them. Every time they spray, people go home sick [after work].”
Pesticide exposure has been associated with long-term and chronic health effects including respiratory problems, cancer, depression, neurologic deficits, and reproductive health problems. Children are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of toxic exposures as their brains and bodies are still developing.
Several children also reported respiratory symptoms while working with dried tobacco, such as coughing, sneezing, difficulty breathing, or tightness in the chest. Fungai, 16, worked on five tobacco farms in Mashonaland Central, where he lived with his mother and two older siblings. He said he suffered respiratory symptoms while grading dried tobacco: “During grading, you’re sneezing and having trouble breathing. It’s the smell of the tobacco. Once it hits you it’s like you’ve been burned.”
Child Labor and Education
Zimbabwe has committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which sets a target for all countries to offer all children free, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education by 2030. The goals are also in line with the country’s international and regional human rights obligations to realize the right to primary and secondary education for all.
While Zimbabwe’s constitution requires the government to promote “free and compulsory basic education for children,” many families have to pay fees or levies for their children to go to public schools. Children are only required to attend school through age 12, even though the minimum age to begin working is 16. The compulsory education age is low relative to many other countries in the African Union, and Human Rights Watch research suggests that children in Zimbabwe face barriers to completing their compulsory education and accessing secondary school.
Interviewees told Human Rights Watch that primary school fees were typically $10 to $15 per term, and secondary school fees were higher—sometimes close to $150 for the first term, and $35 to $50 for subsequent terms. Parents, children, teachers, and worker advocates interviewed for this report said that school fees posed a barrier to children’s education, and many interviewees said the fees became prohibitively expensive for their families, particularly in secondary school. Some interviewees said school administrators sent children home, or refused to provide end-of-year exam results if school fees were unpaid. Interviewees also described how indirect educational costs for things like books and uniforms posed a challenge for many families.
It was beyond the scope of this report to investigate barriers in access to primary and secondary education across all sectors, as the focus of our research was child labor and human rights abuses on tobacco farms.
In research in other countries, Human Rights Watch has found that school fees pose a barrier to education for many children. In Zimbabwe, the difficulties accessing education because of school fees likely affect many low-income families outside of the tobacco sector, though our research suggests children in small-scale tobacco farming families may face particular risks continuing their education, due to the nature of their financial cycles. Many small-scale tobacco farmers told Human Rights Watch that they received earnings only during one part of the year after selling tobacco, and therefore often struggled to pay school fees at the start of the academic term beginning in January. Small-scale farmers in other types of agricultural production may face similar challenges due to their financial cycles.
Teachers in tobacco growing regions told Human Rights Watch that their students were often absent during the tobacco growing season, particularly during the labor-intensive periods of planting and harvesting, making it difficult for them to keep up with their school work. Joseph, a grade 5 teacher in Mashonaland West, said one-quarter of his 43 students worked on tobacco farms. “It causes a lot of absenteeism,” he said. “You find out of 63 days of the term, a child is coming 15 to 24 days only,” he said.
Northern Tobacco, in its 2017 monitoring of one tobacco-growing region from which it sources in Zimbabwe, confirmed high rates of absenteeism due to farmers’ difficulty paying school fees and risks of child labor during the most labor-intensive tobacco farming periods.
Some children missed school to work for hire on tobacco farms to raise money for their school fees. For example, Davidzo, a 15-year-old boy in Mashonaland Central, missed 15 days of class to work in tobacco farming. He said, “I had to absent myself from school because I needed school fees.”
When he returned to school, he was punished by his teachers. “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 said he could not continue to secondary school due to the recurring challenge of paying school fees, so he dropped out.
Other interviewees said children missed school to help their own families with tobacco farming tasks. Some children and young adults interviewed for this report had never attended school or had dropped out before completing their desired level of education to work in tobacco farming. In most of these cases, interviewees said families were unable to cover the cost of their school fees. “I stopped [school] at grade 6,” said, Farai, a 14-year-old tobacco worker in Mashonaland Central. “We couldn’t afford to pay the fees. It was very painful.”
Health and Safety Risks for Adult Tobacco Workers
Like the child workers we interviewed, adult tobacco workers—both small-scale farmers and hired workers on farms of various sizes—were exposed to nicotine and toxic pesticides while working, and many suffered health effects that they attributed to their work on tobacco farms. Interviewees reported that neither government officials nor company representatives had provided them with adequate information about nicotine poisoning and pesticide exposure, or with sufficient training to protect themselves. They also said that they were not provided with, and often lacked the means to procure equipment necessary to protect themselves.
Almost none of the small-scale farmers or hired workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch knew about acute nicotine poisoning, or Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS), or how to protect themselves from it.
However, most had experienced symptoms consistent with nicotine poisoning while working, including nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, and dizziness. Even the contract farmers interviewed for this report, who regularly met with representatives of tobacco companies, had very little, if any, information about nicotine poisoning.
For example, Admire, a 43-year-old tobacco farmer from Manicaland, had sold tobacco through a contract with a tobacco company for seven years, yet he said no one from the company ever informed him about GTS, even though he and most of his family members had suffered symptoms consistent with nicotine poisoning.
Admire said his 17-year-old son had even vomited while handling tobacco. “When we’re hanging tobacco, we normally feel weak or vomit, and get a headache and dizziness,” he said. “We have never heard that kind of education,” he said. “You fall sick, but you don’t know what it is.”
Nearly all small-scale farmers and many hired farmworkers interviewed for this report said they handled toxic chemicals while working on tobacco farms.
While most small-scale farmers and hired farmworkers had some understanding that pesticides could be dangerous, many had not received comprehensive education or training about how to protect themselves and other workers from exposure.
Many interviewees handled chemicals without any protective equipment, or with improper or incomplete protection. Interviewees reported illness after coming into contact with toxic chemicals, including nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, stomach pain, headaches, dizziness, skin irritation (particularly of the face), chest pain, blurred vision, eye irritation, respiratory irritation, and other symptoms.