The hidden side effects of tobacco
In the report titled ‘Smokescreens in the Supply Chain’, Swedwatch highlights the tobacco sector’s pressing human rights and sustainability challenges and documents findings from investigations into the tobacco industry in Bangladesh.
40 million men, women and children work in tobacco cultivation and processing worldwide. Swedwatch has identified widespread child labour, adverse health impacts, and over-indebtedness in the Bangladesh supply chain of British American Tobacco (BAT), the world’s third largest multinational tobacco company. BAT is expanding cultivation into new countries without adequately addressing human rights challenges and implementing measures to ensure that vulnerable groups and the environment are protected.
The results of Swedwatch’s field study in Bangladesh show three main problems in the tobacco fields: child labour is widespread, health ramifications from exposure to pesticides and nicotine are common and many farmers are trapped in over indebtedness.
Although the sector in theory provides much-needed income opportunities for smallholder farmers, the reality is different: investment costs are high and when contract practices* are substandard the returns at the end of the season are uncertain. In areas with few income alternatives, farmers risk becoming dependent on a company’s often unpredictable purchasing decisions.
Farmers run the risk of their goods being down-graded or simply not purchased. This means that, together with health and child-labour risks, farmers risk being trapped in a cycle of over-indebtedness. According to Swedwatch’s analysis that in turn increases the risk for bonded labour as defined by the International Labour Organization**.
Tobacco cultivation also comes at high costs for many of the farmers’ families and their labourers. Children, often primary school-age or older, work long hours and carry out hazardous tasks in the cultivation process. This also has negative impacts on children’s health, well-being and education.
When presented with the findings, BAT emphasised the benefits from tobacco farming and stated that the vast majority of Swedwatch findings are not representative of reality. According to BAT’s management systems in Bangladesh, there are zero reported incidences of child labour and bonded labour.
The report contains recommendations to tobacco companies, investors and decision makers, highlighting for example the need for comprehensive good practice sustainability assessments and Human Rights Impact Assessments, and detailed public information on tobacco sourcing. The information should include supply countries, suppliers, and size and location of cultivation areas.
BAT provided full responses to the allegations which are included in the report. Swedwatch’s report and a separate statement from BAT are published on Swedwatch’s website.
* Contract farming good practice is characterised by clear and readable contracts; transparency and fairness in production quota, price and quality; fair investment risk sharing between farmer and company; open dialogue and mechanisms for settling disputes. FAO, IFAD, UNIDROIT, 2015.
** Swedwatch uses the term “bonded labour” to refer to a form of forced labour where a person is coerced to work through the use of accumulated debt, as defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO).
*** Swedwatch was assisted during the research process and field visit by Six Oranges, specifically Harjinder Bahra (Producer), Liza Boschin (Journalist), Marco Marasca (Editor), Shafiur Rahman (Director).
Made in collaboration with: Svenska kyrkan