Astana (AsiaNews / Agencies) - "From 4 am to 10 – a girl of 12 tells officials at Human Rigths Watch (HRW) - we go to the fields to gather [tobacco leaves]. 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. "
Last autumn HRW interviewed dozens of field labourers in the district of Enbekshikazakh, about 120 km east of Almaty, the heart of tobacco cultivation. It has published the results in the pamphlet " Hellish Work: Exploitation of Migrant Tobacco Workers in Kazakhstan". From the interviews and what HRW has seen emerges documented violations of the minimum wage and a lack of written contracts, forced labour, threats and “slave-like” treatment, long working hours in the sun and the widespread exploitation of children as young as 10. Lacking drinking water workers often drink in irrigation canals contaminated with pesticides.
The meagre salary, often given at the end of the harvest is proportional to the quantity of tobacco harvested, processed, dried, minus travel expenses and accommodation, amounting to a few hundred dollars for about 6 months work. So the families also bring their children with them, to have more arms. The interviewed child is Kyrgyz, who arrived along with hundreds of families without work. The harvest can last six months and the children miss school. The nicotine in tobacco can be absorbed by the skin during the harvest, with serious health problems for children.
Following the report, the Kazakh government officials have met with the leaders of HRW and have expressed their "concern".
The report also revealed that all the tobacco in this area is purchased by Philip Morris Kazakhstan, a subsidiary of leading multinational Philip Morris International, which sells its products in 160 countries and has a turnover of approximately 90 billion dollars with brands like Marlboro, L & M, Chesterfield, Bond Street.
In recent days, the company wrote on its online site that "Philip Morris strongly opposes child labour." Its spokesman Peter Nixon, reached by the media, said that now the company will strive to prevent the tobacco harvest in Kazakhstan, demanding that suppliers make written contracts with parents and that they are planning surprise inspections.
Jane Buchanan, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, notes that "a company like Philip Morris certainly has the resources to stop these practices" and that in Central Asia and the problem of child labour is well known and " companies should have policies to recognize and eliminate problems with human rights related to their supply " of raw material.
Experts estimate that t 300 thousand to a million immigrants arrive in the country each year from former Soviet states, many to do farm work.
The migrants interviewed explained that when they arrive on the field, employers withdraw their passports, saying that they have to present them to police for visas. The passport is returned to the workers only the night before their departure. Without a visa or residence permit.