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Zambia faces up to blight of child labor

Thirteen-year-old Wamundila Sibeso complains of nausea, headaches and dizziness – symptoms likely linked to her work picking tobacco on one of the many Zambian farms that rely on child labor.

“Every time I leave work, I feel nausea, which leads to vomiting sometimes,” she told Anadolu Agency. “The common problem I often feel is headaches, dizziness and lightheadedness.”

Wamundila, who was sent to work harvesting tobacco leaf at the age of 10, is among the hundreds of thousands of children working in Zambia, primarily in the agriculture and mining industries.

According to a report by the International Labor Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Bank, more than one in three children aged 7 to 14 were at work in 2008.

The 2012 report said that while the country had witnessed a substantial reduction in child labor, a best case scenario would still estimate just below one million children in employment in 2015.

“My work on the plantation involves collecting ripe tobacco leaves,” Raphael Mupinganjila, 15, said. “Sometimes we’re forced to work in tobacco fields while [pesticide] spraying is going on.”

It is not the hard work that preys most on Raphael’s mind but the education he is missing.

“I would love to go to school like other kids, but I’m from a poor family who can’t afford to send us to school,” he said. “Instead, my siblings and I have to join our parents to contribute a family income.

“I don’t like this job but I have to work to eat and help my parents.”

Zambia’s tobacco farms constitute an overwhelming 75 percent of the nation’s child labor problem, according to Chris Lunneta, Zambia’s UNICEF children’s rights ambassador.

Lunneta told Anadolu Agency that children working on tobacco farms are not only treated inhumanely but are also exposed to nicotine and toxic pesticides.

“Farm workers in Zambia face many challenges, including not only poverty and widespread health risks but also a high debt burden,” he said. “In order to supplement a living, parents engage their children in farm work, and this has perpetuated child labor in Zambia.

“In some cases, farm owners directly hire children to work on tobacco farms to work alongside their parents and [they] are paid slave wages.”

Dr. Mannesse Phiri, a medical researcher, said exposing children to tobacco leaves puts them at risk from a number of health issues.

“Exposing children to tobacco dust subjects them to hazardous diseases, like green tobacco sickness, including extreme coughing and other negative respiratory effects the children working on farms often face,” he said.

“Nicotine causes nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness and difficulty breathing, including fluctuations in blood pressure.”

Phiri said although the law prohibits the sale of tobacco to under-16s, children work on tobacco farms without protective clothes, exposing them to toxic chemicals.

He suggested the urgent replacement of unsustainable tobacco production with healthy food systems and strengthening collective action among tenant farmers to resolve the health issues facing tobacco workers, as well as strengthening tobacco control policies.

“Extending protection to farmers is a key to the tobacco supply chain and will provide an essential component which will allow farmers to exert greater control over production practices while minimizing the influence of tobacco industry initiatives meant to disrupt tobacco control,” he told Anadolu Agency.

“Accordingly, this 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.”

– Cheaper, more docile

If farmers are able to bargain collectively without fear of retribution, Phiri said, tobacco farm workers would be able to create better livelihoods for themselves and their families.

Zambia’s Labor and Social Security Minister Fackson Shamenda said tobacco farmers employed children because they are cheaper and more docile.

“This is despite the existence of prohibitions on employing children in laborious work, which subject children to all forms of abuses during the course of duty,” he said. “Sometimes children develop habits such as taking drugs or smoking.”

Zambia’s Central Statistics Office shows that child labor is still rife in rural areas of Zambia – as high as 45 percent. This is due to the high levels of poverty among rural families, although in recent times the trend has been slowly shifting to towns, where many households are headed by children due to the rise in HIV/AIDS.

Last month, the government launched an initiative to cut child labor.

The Achieving Reduction of Child Labor in Supply of Education (ARISE) scheme reported that more than 1,000 children had been taken out of work and sent to school in Zambia’s Western province.

Among the initiative’s sponsors is Japan Tobacco International (JIT), the world’s third-largest tobacco company.

Since entering the Zambian market in 2011, the company has employed more than 7,000 farmers in the Eastern and Western provinces and plans on investing more than $12 million in the local tobacco industry.

Speaking at the launch, Western Province Permanent Secretary Mwangala Liomba welcomed the involvement of tobacco companies in the fight against child labor.

Mike Roach, the managing director of JTI-Zambia, said the company was committed to eradicating child poverty. “With the help of cooperating partners, JTI-Zambia will provide resources aimed at supporting the fight against all forms of child labor in Zambia,” he told Anadolu Agency.

By Francis Maingaila

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