Everyone sat on a thatched blanket spread outside under the warm sun, near the tobacco curing barn, with flat farmland, green grass and the occasional tree stretching as far as the eye could see. Admire (not his real name), a tobacco farmer in Zimbabwe, had welcomed the researcher Margaret Wurth and two colleagues onto his property. Admire, together with his wife and their 20-year-old daughter, who both held energetic babies, talked with the researchers about tobacco farming.
When Margaret asked if they had ever heard of the terms nicotine poisoning or Green Tobacco Sickness, or knew what it was, the family said no.
She was horrified, though not surprised – she had heard this again and again from other farmers in Zimbabwe. For the past seven years, Admire had contracted with a company that supplied a major multinational cigarette maker. Tobacco companies have responsibilities to respect human rights in their supply chains, and that includes making sure that farmers know about the dangers of nicotine exposure – particularly for children. Margaret had hoped that in those seven years, someone would have warned Admire.
Tobacco is Zimbabwe's most valuable export, generating US$933.7 million in 2016. After President Robert Mugabe was forced from office last year, the new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, said that agriculture will be a key pillar of the government's plans to revive the economy. However, Human Rights Watch research into conditions on Zimbabwe's tobacco farms revealed an industry tainted by child labor and confronted by other serious human rights problems.
While Admire's whole family was warm and welcoming, it was Admire, a slim man with a thin face, who did most of the talking. His wife and daughter, who wore the long, patterned skirts traditional for Zimbabwe's women, would sometimes chime in. Admire and his wife have five children, the eldest being the daughter who joined the conversation and the youngest their baby girl. Like other children in this community, both their eldest daughter and 17-year-old son started to help with the harvest at around age 14. During our visit, this son was away from the farm, delivering his family's tobacco to the auction houses in Harare, where it would be weighed and handed over to the company. Admire's children in grade 6 and grade 7 help their parents and older siblings carry tobacco leaves.
Admire's children only work when he can't afford to hire workers—which happens often. But he wishes it were otherwise, he told Margaret "[My kids would] relax, they'd go to school without pain in their bodies," he said. "At night they'd sleep. They'd have enough time to read books."
When the family told her they had never heard of nicotine poisoning, Margaret explained the symptoms – nausea, dizziness, headaches – and that it's caused by nicotine being absorbed into the body through your skin and clothes while handling tobacco. She also explained that this is even more dangerous for children, as nicotine is a toxin that can affect the brain, especially in children, who are still growing and developing.
You could see the realization hit them. "When we're hanging tobacco, we normally feel weak or vomit, and get a headache and dizziness," Admire said, explaining that he felt sick while hanging the leaves in the curing barn, a windowless brick building heated by fire, where the tobacco dries. This wasn't surprising. Nicotine is water-soluble, and when tobacco plants are wet, or workers are sweaty, nicotine dissolves into the moisture and enters the bloodstream more readily. It is places like curing barns – hot, sweaty, enclosed, and surrounded by tobacco – where people get really sick. His 17-year-old son, he added, has also vomited while working with tobacco. Both his wife and daughter had gotten dizzy while harvesting tobacco. "You fall sick, but you don't know what it is," Admire added.
Margaret told Admire and his family how to avoid nicotine poisoning – something it would have been easy enough for the company to do long ago. Did they have raincoats? Water-resistant gloves? Admire's family was poor, and the only protective clothing they had was the two pairs of gloves the company had given them (at a cost). She explained that the best way to help someone sick with nicotine poisoning is to get them away from tobacco, and have them bathe and change clothes. She also stressed the need to drink water.
Admire thanked Margaret. "We have never heard that kind of education," he said.
For farmers like Admire, who make very little money, buying gloves or raincoats is difficult. "We just suffer," he said, indicating they work without protection.
Admire and other farmers the researchers spoke with get paid once a year, and they often run out of money before their next harvest, leaving them unable to pay their children's school fees – school in Zimbabwe is not free. Admire is lucky, though. He's behind in paying the fees, but unlike other farmers we spoke with, he said the school hasn't sent his children home. "They know I'll bring the fees after I go to sell [my tobacco]," he said.
The tobacco companies provide them with tobacco seeds, pesticides, and other things they need – although after the harvest the farmers have to pay the companies back with interest.
He had, of course, signed a detailed contract agreement with the company – a contract that most likely said he agreed to comply with company policies on child labor, handling pesticides, and preventing nicotine poisoning. But like many farmers we spoke with, Admire said he wasn't given a copy of the contract. Only the companies held the contracts, leaving the farmers vulnerable.
But do you know what Admire did have at home? The company had given him an itemized list of specific chemicals, fertilizers and other necessities for growing tobacco that he received from the company, how much they cost, and how much he would pay for them at the end of the season—with 10 percent interest added. It included the quantity and unit price of each item. Admire understood each line.
In tiny print at the bottom was a reminder that farmers are expected to comply with a requirement of the company's social responsibility guidelines– specifically on the fuel used in curing barns. Admire said it meant he was not allowed to cut down trees to use for firewood in his curing barn.
Margaret and her colleagues already knew a lot about this company's social responsibility guidelines. It was a set of standards used by many of the world's largest tobacco companies, covering four different areas: crop, environment, facilities, and people. It includes requirements on child labor, labor rights, and health and safety, in line with international standards.
On paper it looks good. But the only information Admire had about this program was a voucher saying he could only use fuel supplied by the company. He had zero materials about health and safety, nothing about protecting the rights of workers on farms, nothing about child labor.
When the researchers asked Admire what the program was, he had no idea. "I'm not understanding," he said.
Other farmers Margaret spoke with had similar experiences.
Human Rights Watch sent six-page letters to dozens of tobacco companies, describing our research findings and asking questions about their human rights policies and practices. In their responses, many proudly drew attention to the kinds of guidelines Admire and many other farmers like him knew next to nothing about.
"For us, it was so clearly emblematic of the gap between the nice policies the companies post on their websites, and the reality on the ground in tobacco farming communities," Margaret said.
She wishes companies showed more concern for the health and safety of the farmers and workers, and their families – especially children.
"Can you imagine that every year, your family got sick, you got sick and you don't know what it is and think it's inevitable," Margaret said. "But if you had the right training and information, and better protective equipment, that wouldn't be the case."