Everyone knows smoking is a costly habit, taking a toll on your health and your wallet. What you probably didn’t know is that the tobacco industry extracts a much dearer price from children laboring in the remote fields of Central Asia.
Despite some legal and political troubles in recent years, the Philip Morris empire is still squeezing handsome profits from a vast migrant labor regime in Kazakhstan. A report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently shamed the company by revealing that migrant tobacco harvesters, many of them young children, are regularly subjected to abuse, wage theft, and even physical captivity. (Video below.)
Of course, labor abuse in the cultivation of tobacco is as old as the industry itself. In the colonial era, the tobacco crop gave rise to a thriving international trade in the Chesapeake, leading to environmental destruction, the displacement of indigenous communities, and political clashes. Over time, the great tobacco plantations helped institute the chattel slavery system that came to define the Southern economy.
Today, tobacco is still king in Kazakhstan, a major destination for migrant labor from relatively impoverished neighboring countries.
HRW interviewed scores of workers and family members, primarily in the Enbekshikazakh district of Almaty province. Migrants and their children typically cross the porous border from Kyrgyzstan in search of temporary work. Landowners here directly contract with Philip Morris Kazakhstan, part of the Philip Morris International network that serves international brands like Marlboro, Parliament, and Virginia Slims. The tobacco harvested in Kazakhstan, however, is used for small regional brand cigarettes.
An ordinary workday might include up to eighteen hours of “planting, watering, weeding, fertilizing, harvesting, stringing and drying tobacco.” A nine-month season might include just 14 days of rest. Workers are exposed to hazards like toxic contamination from pesticides and the tobacco leaves themselves.
Debt bondage is apparently common, as workers arrive at the fields already indebted due to the costs of being transported by middlemen. They often must work the entire season before seeing any wages, and their vulnerability is deepened by the common practice of bosses confiscating passports. For children in the fields, work takes precedence over school. While some child workers are native Kazakhs, migrant children face especially severe educational barriers due to their marginal status.
A bad harvest could wipe out the entire season’s earnings and more, since landowners skim wages for food and other expenses. One family’s story traces the debt cycle that chains migrants to the farm:
When the family first came in April 2007, the landowner paid an exorbitant fee to the intermediary who brought Ulkan U. and her children from Kyrgyzstan and expected her to repay this and other expenses, such as food costs, at the end of the season. After a modest harvest, Ulkan U. found herself in debt, and the employer demanded she remain another season in order to repay him. Although she repaid her debt at end of 2008, she still did not have sufficient funds to return home and worked with her children during the 2009 tobacco season as well. Her children have not attended school since 2007.
Such practices clearly violate both international labor standards and Kazakh law. But the HRW reports that formal redress is nearly impossible for isolated, poor and transient noncitizens. Despite mandates under international human rights law, “in most cases the government of Kazakhstan has not fulfilled its obligations in its treatment of migrant workers: it has neither provided sufficient legal protections nor made existing protections effective.”
Kazakhstan hosts anywhere from 300,000 to one million migrant laborers, according to HRW. Under the country’s quota system, most seek only informal employment, especially since the government recently restricted the importation of guestworkers in response to high domestic unemployment. As with immigration restrictions elsewhere in the world, the migrants who find themselves stuck in the country illegally are in the worst bind, since, as HRW states, “workers with irregular status have no rights.”
HRW says Philip Morris Kazakhstan and Philip Morris International have, in light of the group’s findings, “committed to taking measures to address the abuses and exploitative practices.” But company executives contended that their own inspections “did not find evidence of some of the worst abuses documented by Human Rights Watch, such as forced labor or debt bondage.”
Nonetheless, they promised to cooperate with Kazakhstani authorities and non-governmental organizations to deal with migrant children’s education issues. The company also plans to engage an independent monitoring organization to track future reform programs.
While Philip Morris may seek to demonstrate good corporate citizenship, the report suggests that the exploitation of migrants in Kazakhstan is just a regular part of doing business in this part of the world. (Meanwhile, the ongoing conflict in neighboring Kyrgystan portends further regional destabilization and mass migration.)
On this side of the planet, pressuring individual employers – say, through a boycott – might deter certain corporate abuses. But the network of companies surrounding Philip Morris is, as Alternet’s Byard Duncan notes, extremely complex and perhaps near impossible for consumers to undermine. Migrants’ struggles reflect the deep entanglement of global economic inequality and the power of the market.
So the cash crop that helped engender modern capitalism continues its reign. This chapter of tobacco’s rich history of exploitation demonstrates, once again, that this stuff is pretty hard to quit.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.