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PORTSIDE  July 2010, Week 3

PORTSIDE July 2010, Week 3

Subject:

Tobacco Giant Philip Morris Is Hooked on Child Labor

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Date:

Mon, 19 Jul 2010 00:21:33 -0400

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Tobacco Giant Philip Morris Is Hooked on Child Labor
By Michelle Chen
In These Times
July 16, 2010
http://www.inthesetimes.com/working/entry/6235/tobacco_giant_philip_morris_is_hooked_on_child_labor/

[moderator: to view the accompaning video please click
on the link above]

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.

_____________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest
to people on the left that will help them to
interpret the world and to change it.

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