analysisBy Gitonga Njeru
The Kenyan government has tried to curtail tobacco production, but its policies have indirectly led remaining tobacco farms to increasingly draw on immigrant child labour.
In July 2007, the Kenyan government enacted the Tobacco Control Act. Under the act, smoking in public urban spaces was restricted, and tobacco farmers were encouraged to switch to other (mainly food) crops. Agriculturalists were given incentives in the form of government loans to help 'restore' their land, which had been contaminated by nicotine and other chemicals from the tobacco plants.
But while these policies are aimed at improving Kenyan citizens' health, they have also had an unfortunate side-effect - as adult workers have moved to farms growing less hazardous crops, remaining tobacco farms have increasingly recruited child labourers.
Since the implementation of the Tobacco Control Act, revamped farms have attracted adult labourers drawn by the improved working conditions. Workers in tobacco farms are prone to various lung diseases; in fact, according to the statistics presented by the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation at a recent forum, treatment of these diseases was costing the government 1 billion KES ($12 million) a year in 2007, dwarfing the 400 million KES ($5 million) gained in tobacco tax revenue the same year. Horticultural and fruit farms were thus seen as healthier and more cost-effective.
This move, however, left those remaining tobacco farms short of labour. This precipitated an increase in the trafficking of immigrant child labour - mostly from Somalia and Kenyan refugee camps.
Poor families, porous borders
"There is a high exploitation of children in the country", Judy Thongori, a children's rights activist and family lawyer, tells Think Africa Press. "Kenya has one of the highest recorded cases in the world in terms of human trafficking.
On average, there are 20 cases per month of reported human trafficking cases involving immigrant children. The backlog of cases is a setback since there are few magistrates and judges to handle such cases." Only around three a year lead to convictions.
Millicent Ogila, a trade unionist with the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU), Kenya's largest trade union organisation, agrees that immigrant child labour is a serious problem in the country.
She blames Kenya's weak immigration laws and the high level of corruption in the Ministry for Immigration and Registration of Persons, particularly regarding the issuing of visas and passports to illegal immigrants. Every year for the last five years, Transparency International, an NGO monitoring political and corporate corruption, has ranked Kenya as one of the 20 most corrupt countries in the world. Furthermore, Kenya's immigration ministry consistently ranks as one of the most corrupt government institutions in the country.
Moreover, as a member of the five-nation East African Community (EAC), whose member-states have agreed on minimal border controls, Kenya is particularly open to immigration from surrounding countries. These are the primary sources of child labourers.
"Apart from local child labour, there are immigrant child workers working on the farms mostly from neighbouring countries in the East Africa Community", explains Ogila. "The children are aged between five and fifteen - both boys and girls. Tobacco companies encourage child labour, as they don't worry so much about occupational safety as about making a profit."
According to Ogila, there has been an absolute decrease of around 50% in Kenyan child labour since 2003 when the government initiated its free primary education programme. But as this system only caters for Kenyan children, it has conversely led to an increase in immigrant child labour. "The children, mostly Somalis, are trafficked from refugee camps via Nairobi then to various tobacco growing destinations by human traffickers", explains Eric Kiraithe, a police spokesman. "Most of the children do not have legal documents to be in the country."
Choking the trafficking
These children also typically come from poor families and work to support their parents. Their salary is far below the national minimum wage of 8,000 KES (around $100) per month. For this, they brave all kinds of health risks including Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS), according to William Maina, head of the governmental Department of Communicable Diseases.
GTS can be contracted through the extensive handling of wet tobacco leaf, and symptoms include extreme muscle weakness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, asthma, boils, breathing difficulties, diarrhoea, fever, and changes in blood pressure and heart rate. Most child labourers, however, have no choice but to work in order to send money back home - the value of which often depends on human traffickers as intermediaries in these transactions.
According to 2011 estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are over 1,500 Somalis crossing into Kenya's Dadaab refugee camps every day. An employee from Kenya's Ministry for Immigration and Registration of Persons, who asked to remain anonymous, told Think Africa Press that the Kenyan government plans to deport many illegal immigrants next year on the grounds that they pose a security threat.
"The move will most likely happen after the March 4 general elections next year", he said. "About 50,000 illegal immigrants, mostly from Somalia, are being targeted." He explained that they will be given three months to depart voluntarily, after which they will face deportation.
But it remains to be seen whether this step, if implemented, will address the fundamental issue at hand and stem the flow of illegal child labourers. Kenya is a signatory to several international conventions against child labour, including one by the International Labour Organization.
But both anti-tobacco lobbies and child labour organisations have accused the government of laxity in enforcing immigration laws, and of failing to observe the terms of the conventions. According to some, the number of child labourers is actually on the increase, and it is not clear that such palliative measures as mass deportation will affect the underlying mechanisms driving this trade.
Gitonga Njeru is a freelance Journalist based in Nairobi. His stories have appeared in the BBC, Reuters, The Guardian, The Huffington Post and other media outlets in the UK, US and South Africa.