Many migrant tobacco workers in Kazakhstan have been cheated and exploited, and some trapped into forced labor, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued today. Kazakh farm owners employ the migrant workers for seasonal work. The farm owners in turn contract with and supply tobacco leaf to Philip Morris Kazakhstan, a subsidiary of Philip Morris International, one of the largest tobacco companies in the world.
The 115-page report, "Hellish Work: Exploitation of Migrant Tobacco Workers in Kazakhstan," documents how some employers confiscated migrant workers' passports, failed to provide them with written contracts, did not pay regular wages, cheated them of earnings, and required them to work excessively long hours. Human Rights Watch also documented frequent use of child labor, with children as young as 10 working, even though tobacco farming is especially hazardous for children. The report was based on interviews in 2009 with 68 people who were working on tobacco farms in Kazakhstan or who had recently worked there.
After Human Rights Watch approached Philip Morris International with these findings, the company made a commitment to take a number of steps in 2010 to prevent and remedy these abuses.
"Many of these tobacco workers -- adults and children alike -- came to Kazakhstan and found themselves in virtual bondage," said Jane Buchanan, senior researcher in the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "Kazakhstan's government clearly needs to do much more to protect tobacco workers, but Philip Morris also has a key role to prevent abuses in its supply chain."
Almira A. went to Malybai, Kazakhstan, in 2009 to farm tobacco with her husband and 16-year-old daughter. The employer immediately confiscated the family's passports. In addition to tobacco farming, for which they received payment only at the end of the season, the employer forced the family to perform other work, like laundry and painting his house, all without pay.
"We were like slaves to him. He treated us really badly," Almira A. told Human Rights Watch. "Of course there was a desire to leave and throw it all away, but how? Our passports were with the landowner, and we had no money. If we left, then all of our work would be for nothing. And without money, how would we even get back home from there?"
The government of Kazakhstan should carry out rigorous labor inspections, prosecute abusive employers, and carry out timely and effective investigations into allegations of abuse, Human Rights Watch said. Philip Morris International and its subsidiaries should ensure fulfillment of the commitments it made to prevent and remedy abuses.
Experts estimate that Kazakhstan hosts from 300,000 to 1 million migrant workers each year. The vast majority come from countries in the former Soviet Union and enter Kazakhstan without visas. Thousands of these migrant workers, most from Kyrgyzstan, find work in tobacco farming.
"We found that many migrant tobacco workers in 2009 and in earlier years faced a range of abuses, from a lack of regular wages to, in the worst cases, forced labor," Buchanan said. "It's great that Philip Morris Kazakhstan and Philip Morris International want to improve the situation, but that's going to require regular independent monitoring and a sustained effort."
Human Rights Watch documented 72 cases of children working in tobacco in 2009. Experts consider tobacco farming one of the worst forms of child labor, meaning children under the age of 18 should not be working in it. Children face particular risks associated with the handling of tobacco leaves and exposure to pesticides. In addition, children who worked with their families on tobacco farms typically missed several months of school each year.
"Children were working right alongside their parents for long seasons of tough manual labor," Buchanan said. "And while the children worked, they were exposed to high levels of nicotine and were not getting the education they deserve."
Workers described a payment system that both contributed to child labor and put workers at particular risk of serious exploitation, Human Rights Watch said. The workers, typically only the head of a family, received one lump sum payment at the end of an eight or nine month tobacco season after the tobacco had been harvested.
This system created a significant penalty for migrant workers who sought to leave an abusive situation, since leaving before the harvest would have meant losing their pay up to that date. It also meant that many workers were forced to depend on employers for food and other necessities, with the employers deducting the costs at the end of the season. Employers also confiscated passports as a way to keeping workers from leaving.
"We found six families who were trapped in situations amounting to forced labor," Buchanan said. "Employers paid them only after eight or nine months of farming tobacco, made many of them do household chores and other farming for no pay at all, and on top of everything, confiscated their passports to coerce them to stay on the job."
In a few other cases found by Human Rights Watch, these factors resulted in debt bondage, where families worked a whole season only to find themselves in debt to the farm owner after the harvest and were required to work additional seasons to pay off the debts.
Employers in some cases required workers to perform other work in addition to tobacco farming, with no compensation. Work extracted under menace of penalty and for which a person has not offered to work voluntarily is forced labor and is banned under both international and Kazakhstan law.
After Human Rights Watch presented its findings to Philip Morris International, the company made commitments to make changes, including requiring employers to provide written contracts, establish regular wages for workers, stop passport confiscation, and enforce the prohibition on the use of child labor.
Philip Morris International also made a commitment to ensure that training for Philip Morris Kazakhstan staff covers child labor, forced labor, illegal passport retention, and the need to make sure children of migrant workers have access to education.
Both Philip Morris International and Philip Morris Kazakhstan have said they will work with the government of Kazakhstan to address access to schools for migrant children and contribute to summer programs for children as alternatives to working. Philip Morris International has also hired a third-party expert organization to monitor labor practices in Kazakhstan and other Philip Morris International markets.
The government of Kazakhstan also needs to provide monitoring and enforcement, Human Rights Watch said.
"Kazakhstan has an obligation under international law to protect all victims of abuse, irrespective of the victim's migration status or contractual status," Buchanan said. "It's time for the government to stop acting as if migrant workers don't have rights and take decisive action against abusive employers."