Tobacco farmers exploiting child labor


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JP/Jerry Adiguna

The International Labor Organization, Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance and local NGOs want the government and industry to put a stop to child labor.

“It is important that child laborers receive attention because they are often neglected and susceptible to violence from the industries in which they work,” the National chief technical advisor of the PROMOTE project of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Indonesia, Arum Ratnawati, told The Jakarta Post.

She said ILO estimated that there were almost 2.5 million Indonesian children working who should not be, of which 21 percent were domestic workers, and almost 60 percent in the tobacco industry. Twenty-six percent of total domestic workers are under the age of 18 and 90 percent of them are female mainly from poor village families with low educational levels.

“These children work long hours. Some of them even work up to 12 hours a day, but they get very low wages, or are even unpaid,” she said at “No to Child Labour in Domestic Work” during World Day Against Child Labor on June 12.

ILO is urging the government to set a minimum wage for every child who works as a domestic helper, in line with ILO Convention No. 189 on domestic workers.

The executive director of the Alliance of the Elimination of Child Labor, Achmad Marzuki, said that children who worked as domestic servants were isolated, and could be denied their rights to education, healthcare and contact with their families.

“In most cases that we see, the bosses of the children don’t allow them to attend school to get a proper education. Furthermore, supervisors from migrant worker agencies have difficulties in reaching these children to provide protection,” he said. 

He said that recently his organization and other child action groups among local NGOs had pushed the government to begin deliberating the law on protecting domestic workers, including children. There is no law that protects domestic child workers from exploitation and violence because they work in the informal sector.

Director for the International Tobacco Control Project Mary Assunta Kolandai said that child labor in the tobacco industry was a major problem in Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. The activities of children in tobacco farming violate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, putting the children at a high risk of health threats and commercial exploitation.

“Children in these countries take part in all tobacco farm activities from planting, watering, transplanting, applying fertilizer, weeding and harvesting to post-harvesting of tobacco seedlings and leaves, which exposes them to the hazardous effect of nicotine,” she said.

The children absorb nicotine from contact with wet tobacco leaves, which causes them to suffer green tobacco sickness with symptoms including dizziness, nausea and lethargy. Child workers are reluctant to go to the doctor for such symptoms.

“Most children prefer to buy cigarettes rather than spend their salaries on healthcare,” she said. “What these companies are doing is scandalous. They hire these children to produce cigarettes, which they then sell to them.”

The coordinator of the Total Ban Alliance, Priyo Adi Nugroho, said that in Sampang and Probolinggo, East Java, the children in the tobacco fields worked three to seven hours per day, earning only Rp 15,000 (US$1.51) to Rp 25,000. 

“Most of these children smoke at least six cigarettes a day,” he said.

The chairman of the National Commission for Child Protection (Komnas PA), Arist Merdeka Sirait, said that tobacco companies had violated ILO Convention No. 182 and No. 138 on the minimum age of employment, which prohibits companies from hiring workers under the age of 18.

“I recommended the public say no to child labor and stop buying and using products that involve child labor in production,” he said. (tam)

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