Child worker in one of Kazakhstan’s tobacco fields. Photo credit: Filip Spagnoli

Despite national and international laws prohibiting children from working in tobacco fields, many migrant youth in Kazakhstan reportedly spend up to thirteen hours per day harvesting Philip Morris Kazakhstan’s (PMK) tobacco leaves during the hottest months of the year. Most of the children have migrated with their families from other Central Asian countries to work in the fields. The intense labor requirements, and exposure to toxic pesticides and dangerous levels of nicotine, jeopardize the safety and health of field workers, especially child laborers, who are more vulnerable than adults to the hazards of tobacco farming. PMK has disregarded its corporate social responsibility by profiting from migrant child labor in Kazakhstan, and the Kazakh government has been complicit in gross violations of international and domestic laws protecting the rights of migrant children by allowing these practices to continue.

Kazakhstan has ratified several international treaties, which prohibit migrant child labor. Article 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Kazakhstan ratified in 2006, prohibits the economic and social exploitation of children. The ICESCR restricts children from working in environments that are harmful to their health or development, such as PMK’s tobacco fields. Work in tobacco fields creates a high risk for a host of adverse health effects. Frequently handling large amounts of tobacco can lead to a condition called “green tobacco sickness,” which is caused by the absorption of large amounts of nicotine into the skin and can cause vomiting and headaches. Children are particularly susceptible to green tobacco sickness because of their small size.

Furthermore, the ICESCR urges states to establish minimum age limits for child workers. Kazakh law itself prohibits those younger than eighteen from working on tobacco farms. Nevertheless, a Human Rights Watch report documented more than seventy cases of migrant child labor in 2009. Moreover, the Kazakhstan Government reported more than 900 incidents of migrant child labor in 2009 and more than 1,200 in 2008. Kazakhstan is also bound under the ICESCR to uphold rights for all, regardless of national origin. The fact that many of the child laborers are migrants from other Central Asian countries should make no difference in how the government addresses this issue.

Additionally, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Kazakhstan is a party, requires member states to protect children, regardless of nationality, from work that interferes with their health. Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child further calls on member states to provide a minimum employment age; regulate hours and conditions; and establish penalties and-or sanctions to ensure that employers adhere to the law. As a member of the United Nations International Labor Organization, Kazakhstan is also bound by the Minimum Age Convention and Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention, the latter of which seeks to protect children from forced labor and harmful professions. The Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention also calls for member states to remove children from precarious situations, including those that pose a risk to a youth’s health.

Even though Kazakhstan has not signed or ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which seeks to protect immigrants from less favorable work conditions and increases the recognition of migrant workers’ rights, the previously mentioned international treaties and domestic laws prohibit Kazakhstan from allowing migrant child labor in tobacco fields. However, Kazakhstan’s refusal to join itself to this Convention in conjunction with the prevalence of migrant child labor abuses sends a mixed message to the international community.

PMK, a wholly owned subsidiary of one of the world’s largest tobacco companies Philip Morris International (PMI), buys all of the tobacco in the Enbekshikazakh district of Almaty province, where nearly all of Kazakshtan’s tobacco is grown. PMI has claimed that in past efforts to eliminate migrant child labor practices, it required Kazakh farmers to sign contracts with assurances of adequate labor conditions. However, in 2009, despite more than twenty reports of migrant child labor to PMK, PMK only terminated a single farm’s contract for repeat offenses. Since the report’s release in 2010, PMI has promised to improve communications with PMK and work with the local government.

Despite its international and national legal commitment to ban migrant child labor, Kazakhstan sustains a culture where children work days, nights, and weekends in tobacco fields. To show the world that it is attuned to the rights of migrant families, the Kazakh Government could ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, in addition to meeting its current international legal obligations. PMK should terminate contracts with farms that repeatedly use child labor and the government should initiate more inspections of fields and impose sanctions for violations. Much more needs to be done by the Kazakh Government and business community to eradicate migrant child labor from Kazakhstan’s tobacco fields.