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Tobacco Workers In Kazakhstan Face Exploitation, Child Labor

A child migrant worker from Kyrgyzstan picks tobacco leaves near the village of Koram, Kazakhstan. (photo: Moises Saman, Human Rights Watch)
A child migrant worker from Kyrgyzstan picks tobacco leaves near the village of Koram, Kazakhstan. (photo: Moises Saman, Human Rights Watch)
This 12-year-old girl isn't doing her schoolwork. In fact, she says she has missed months of classes. That's because nearly every hour of her day is spent working in the tobacco fields of Kazakhstan alongside her parents, who are migrant laborers from neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

"From 4 a.m. to 10 a.m., we go to the fields to gather [tobacco leaves]," the girl says. "At 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., we eat and thread [the leaves]. From 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. we gather again. Then thread until midnight, then sleep. Get up again at 4 a.m. And that goes on for a long time."

The girl is one of the dozens of farm workers who was interviewed by the New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) during fact-finding missions it conducted in 2009 in Kazakhstan's Enbekshikazakh district. Some 120 kilometers east of Almaty, it is the site of nearly all of the country's tobacco cultivation -- and according to HRW, the site of widespread exploitation of mainly Kyrgyz migrant workers and their children.

HRW's Rachel Denber
The HRW report, titled "Hellish Work," documents wage violations, forced labor, debt bondage, excessively long working hours, the absence of written contracts, exposure of workers to pesticides, lack of clean drinking water, and illegal labor by children as young as 10 on the tobacco farms.

Rachel Denber, HRW's deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, says that one abuse often leads to another. "The payment structure is such that migrant workers get paid once at the end of the season by the volume of tobacco that they produce," she notes. "And that incentivizes child labor because these migrant workers travel with families and they need to get as many hands on the tobacco as possible."

Denber spoke to RFE/RL from Almaty, where the report was unveiled on July 14. Two days earlier, she met with Kazakh Commissioner on Human Rights Askar Shakirov and Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Protection Birzhan Nurumbetov to discuss the findings.

While the officials responded "with concern," according to Denber, she says the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers employed in Kazakhstan annually essentially have no rights. That figure includes nearly all of the more than 1,000 migrants, mainly from the southern Kyrgyz town of Nookat, who come to Kazakhstan annually for the nine-month tobacco farming season.

Pressure On Philip Morris

But of the numerous instances of migrant-worker exploitation that have come out of the region, the case of the Kyrgyz tobacco laborers is drawing particular international attention -- due to a very high-profile link.

The sole buyer of tobacco in the region is Philip Morris Kazakhstan, a subsidiary of Philip Morris International. The tobacco giant sells its products in some 160 countries, and with a market value of nearly $90 billion, is one of the world's largest publicly traded companies.

Denber says HRW first brought its research to the attention of Philip Morris International in October, and has been in "extensive" contact with them ever since.

When asked to comment, Philip Morris International referred RFE/RL to a press statement posted on its website on July 14, the same day HRW's report was released. The statement says that Philip Morris International is "firmly opposed to child labor and all other labor abuses."

Wealthier Kazakhstan attracts migrant labor from other Central Asian countries.
Acknowledging that the HRW report "raises serious issues concerning child labor and conditions affecting migrant workers on tobacco farms in Kazakhstan," Philip Morris International writes that it has 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."

First Steps Taken, More Needed

Among the steps, the company says it has strengthened contractual obligations for farmers, with the aim of establishing standards of treatment of workers. It also says it has implemented a system of third-party compliance monitoring to ensure changes are made; has reinforced the training of "farmers, workers, and our agronomists on the prevention of child labor"; and has expanded the "training and monitoring relating to migrant-labor rights and working and living conditions."

Denber adds that Philip Morris International has mandated that every farm supplying it with tobacco must offer pay on a regular schedule that does not fall below the minimum wage and has also pledged to prohibit farm owners from confiscating workers' personal documents, a complaint documented by HRW.

On the ground, however, Denber says those pledges have not yet been realized. She believes the pledges are "all very positive, but so far, it doesn't seem as though much has changed. We were out in the fields for a couple of days recently and so far, in this season, there doesn't seem to be any big changes.

"I think it's really important to just keep following up," Denber adds. "I think that Philip Morris has taken a really important first step, but now the most important thing is to see the situation change."

Until it does, migrant workers like this man interviewed for the HRW report, remain at risk of having their identification documents used as collateral to make them stay through the tobacco season, and in many cases, do unpaid labor for landowners on the side.

The man says the farm owner "gathered all our passports and said he would register them with the police. He didn't return them until the night before we were preparing to return home. There was nothing in them -- neither the registration nor the residence permit."

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