Cigarette makers aren't going to enhance their battered public image with this latest bit of news: Tobacco giant Philip Morris International has been using captive child labor in Central Asia to harvest tobacco.
The company, which manufactures the popular Marlboro brand, used child labor and forced labor in contractor-run plantations in Kazakhstan, according to a shocking report by the Human Rights Watch advocacy organization.
Children as young as 10 toiled in the tobacco fields, the report found, and were exposed to dangerous pesticides and hazardous levels of nicotine while missing months of school. The report documented 72 instances of children working in the fields in 2009.
In six cases, employers held their workers in forced or bonded labor by confiscating their passports and birth certificates. They paid the workers one lump sum at the end of the nine-month tobacco season. That payment system plunged workers into debt penury, forcing them to borrow money from the Morris contractors until the end of the growing season. The report also found that the workers were forced to do other farm work and household labor for no pay.
Most of the plantation's workers were migrants from neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Many of them end up working illegally after their 90-day grace period runs out — an arrangement that places them at the mercy of their employers, who could turn them over to immigration authorities.
Philip Morris International said in a statement that it was "grateful" for the report, and will crack down on child-labor practices and forced labor in its subsidiary companies.
The company does not use Kazakhstan tobacco to make Marlboro, Chesterfield, or Parliament cigarettes, according to the Guardian. The tobacco goes into cigarette brands sold in Russia.
Jane Buchanan, the report's author, told the Independent that the tobacco giant has been slow to implement changes in its system of contractors since she confronted the company with the report in October.