The tobacco industry conundrum: implications for child labour, income generation, and community projects

Megan Buxton

In 2015 the global retail value for cigarettes amounted to US$700bn. With income growing by 815% from the third to the fourth financial quarter of 2016, the industry appears to be thriving. However, exploitation is rife within the tobacco industry. In Malawi 57% of all children in the two prime tobacco-producing regions work on tobacco plantations. It is this phenomenon, the prevalence of child labour, to which the ILO has turned its attention for the 329th Governing Body meeting.

The ILO has supported the abolition of child labour through the Minimum Age Convention (No. 138) and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (No. 182). Despite these conventions having been ratified in Brazil, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Zambia, child labour, which often goes unpaid, remains within these countries.

In response, the ILO has been working in a public-private partnership with the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco-Growing Foundation (ECLT) since 2002. The partnership has worked to rid Tanzania, Malawi and Uganda of child labour in tobacco plantations by establishing grassroots labour inspection systems to monitor child labour practices. In addition, the ILO has supported these countries by working with their governments to ensure the provision of social protection and schooling. In 2010 Malawi held a successful tripartite conference in which president Banda launched a National Action Plan. The stakeholders in this plan include workers’ and employers’ organisations, and governmental bodies such as the Ministry of Agriculture, whose policy decisions are informed by regular social dialogue.

The ILO has also been engaged in a public-private partnership with Japan Tobacco International (JTI). JTI has provided the ILO with US$10,114,200 in funding, which has been used to kickstart the Achieving Reduction of Child Labour in Supporting Education (ARISE) programme in Brazil, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia. The ARISE programme is designed to identify and remedy the structural factors that lead children into work on tobacco plantations within JTI supply chains. In tobacco growing regions, ARISE has aimed to ensure that children are in education and has provided apprenticeships for young adults. In addition, the program has helped governments to set up national monitoring systems to crack down on child labour. Health risks associated with both smoking and the farming of tobacco (green tobacco sickness is a form of nicotine poisoning that is harmful to adults and children alike) have caused the ILO to help farmers find alternative forms of work. The ARISE programme led to the generation of alternative incomes for 4,200 households. However, with 60 million people across 124 countries dependent on tobacco farming, this is a drop in a vast ocean. Furthermore, some alternative vocational training schemes in Brazil have had unintended consequences. Young people have developed skills that are not transferable to tobacco production and have therefore been unable to find work in their rural, tobacco-growing hometowns. Consequently, many have migrated to already overpopulated urban areas without escaping poverty. This suggests that it is not only individuals who need to develop new skill sets, but entire regional economies that need to shift from their dependence on tobacco.

The ILO has also been criticised for its association with tobacco companies, which are powerful stakeholders and lobbyists. Yet, discontinuing these partnerships means losing the funding for community projects aimed at eliminating child labour in tobacco plantations. In addition, there is also uncertainty as to whether the US – which currently supplies the ILO with around 23% of its entire budget – will reduce its funding. If so, it is unlikely that social justice programmes aimed at tobacco-growers will attract alternative sources of revenue.

This leaves the ILO with a series of conundrums. Should the organisation look for alternative sources of funding to sustain its community projects to end child labour? Or should the ILO work towards the complete elimination of tobacco-related production and help workers find different means of income generation? Or does the sole reliance of some communities on tobacco-growing make this option too impractical pursue?


Megan Buxton is a final year undergraduate studying Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield.


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