Cigarette makers are the people who kept insisting that cigarettes were safe despite all the evidence to the contrary. The public didn't appreciate that very much. And now Philip Morris has received another blow to its already battered public image: The company has been using captive child labor in Central Asia to harvest tobacco.
According to Human Rights Watch, children as young as 10 have been working in tobacco fields in Kazakhstan, where they're exposed to dangerous pesticides and hazardous levels of nicotine, and missing out on several months of school.
In some instances, employers held adult workers in forced labor by confiscating their passports and birth certificates. Workers didn't get written contracts or regular wages; and employers cheated them of earnings and required them to work excessively long hours.
One woman who went to Malybai, Kazakhstan in 2009 to farm tobacco with her husband and 16-year-old daughter told Human Rights Watch:
"We were like slaves to him. He treated us really badly. Of course there was a desire to leave and throw it all away, but how? Our passports were with the landowner, and we had no money. If we left, then all of our work would be for nothing. And without money, how would we even get back home from there?"
Philip Morris International said that it was "grateful" for the report, and will crack down on child-labor practices and forced labor in its subsidiary companies:
"Philip Morris International (PMI) is firmly opposed to child labor and all other labor abuses. We work closely with suppliers, governments and other interest groups to address the problems of child labor and other abuses in labor markets related to our supply chain.
We are grateful to Human Rights Watch for bringing these matters to our attention and have taken immediate steps to strengthen the application of our existing policies and practices on child labor and to address the other areas of concern raised in their Report. We have already strengthened contractual obligations for farmers to prohibit certain conduct that was raised in the Report and to establish standards of treatment of the workers. We are also implementing a system of third party compliance monitoring and reinforcing training to farmers, workers and our agronomists on the prevention of child labor and expanding training and internal monitoring to cover issues specific to migrant labor rights and working and living conditions. In addition, we are working with the local authorities and NGOs to improve access of children of migrant workers to local schools."
Philip Morris International also made a commitment to ensure that training for Philip Morris Kazakhstan staff covers child labor, forced labor, illegal passport retention, and the need to make sure children of migrant workers have access to education
I have a good idea Philp Morris. Why don't you just stop making cigarettes?
We'd all be really "grateful."
Image via Super Fantastic/Flickr