CSR: Child Labour

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Child labour is a prevalent and long standing issue in the tobacco growing sector.1 The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a United Nations (UN) agency that establishes labour standards, policies and programmes. ILO Convention No.182, which was adopted in 1999 and bans the “worst forms of child labour”, put pressure on the tobacco industry to address the issue of child labour in its supply chains.2 As an industry-wide response, transnational tobacco companies (TTCs) have invested in corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives that focus on child labour in tobacco growing.3


The ILO defines child labour as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development”.4 The adoption of ILO Convention No.182, which highlights work that “is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children” as hazardous, brought the issue of child labour in tobacco growing to the forefront of international attention.2

The ILO’s most recent assessment in 2017 stated that 152 million children globally were estimated to be involved in child labour. It reported that nearly 71% of child labour took place in the agricultural sector and that 73 million child labourers were involved in hazardous work.5 A report to the ILO’s governing body that year said that no accurate estimate for the number of child labourers specifically in the tobacco industry existed. However, it estimated that the prevalence and rate of child labour in tobacco producing countries was relatively high.1 Accurate statistics are lacking due to “children working as unpaid family members, underreporting, and a lack of labour law enforcement”.6

Child Labour in Tobacco

Child labour in the tobacco industry is a historic issue. In response to criticisms over the use of child labour in tobacco leaf supply chains in Malawi and elsewhere, the tobacco industry established industry-wide CSR programmes and in 2000 launched the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing (ECLT) Foundation. The ECLT was co-founded by British American Tobacco (BAT) and its front group the International Tobacco Growers’ Association (ITGA). All the major tobacco companies have since joined this industry-wide group.37

Despite the launch of ECLT, the problem persisted. In 2008, the civil society organisation, Plan International Malawi, published a report on the continued use of child labour in tobacco growing.8 Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also published a series of extensive reports on the issue in the following countries: Indonesia,9 Kazakhstan,10 United States1112 and Zimbabwe.13

In 2018, The Guardian published a series titled “Tobacco: a deadly business” which investigated the damaging impact of the tobacco industry. It revealed “rampant” situations of child labour in Indonesia, Malawi, Mexico and the United States.1415161718

Following The Guardian exposé, it was announced in October 2019 that British American Tobacco (BAT) would face legal action over the reported payment of poverty wages given to tobacco farming labourers in Malawi. The human rights law firm Leigh Day announced that it was preparing a legal case against BAT on the grounds that the tobacco company was allegedly guilty of “unjust enrichment”. This landmark case was made “on behalf of potentially hundreds of these children and their families” who endure poor working conditions, “backbreaking work” and are “trapped in grinding poverty” or “debt-bondage”.192021 The allegations have been denied by BAT.22

Margaret Wurth, a senior researcher at HRW, has stated that this case – if successful – has the potential to protect child labourers and serve as a legal precedent to force tobacco supply chain reform, demanding companies “pay more for the leaf it buys to ensure proper livelihoods for the workers and farmers at the bottom”. HRW asserts that this case implicates other tobacco firms in the region as well as globally.23

Harms of Child Labour

The hazardous work children are involved with in the tobacco supply chain is harmful to their health, development, and social wellbeing. In tobacco production, children are involved in the growing stage and take part in labour-intensive activities.24 Risks include “long hours, lacerations and piercings from equipment, chemicals, heavy lifting, climbing, and extreme weather conditions” as well as lack “access to water, nutrition, sanitation, and hygiene”.610 These health risks, however, are underreported by the tobacco industry. 11

A significant health risk that many child tobacco workers suffer from is “green tobacco sickness”. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “each day, a tobacco worker who plants, cultivates and harvests tobacco may absorb as much nicotine as found in 50 cigarettes” through their skin.2526 The effects of pesticides and fertilisers also have serious health impacts on children.3

Aside from the health risks, child tobacco workers also face impacts to their education and subsequent harm to their social development.2728 For information on labour costs, economic consequences and empowerment of women in relation to harms of tobacco growing, see our Tobacco Farming page.

Context of Tobacco Industry CSR Child Labour Debate

International conventions such as ILO Convention No.182 and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child have brought attention to the need for transnational corporations, including tobacco companies, to eliminate child labour in their supply chains.229 Faced with increasing public pressure to address this issue, the tobacco industry publishes CSR and sustainability reports to give the perception that they not only support the elimination of child labour in tobacco growing, but also that they are actively trying to eliminate it.3

For example, reporting of child labour initiatives and activities is present in the major tobacco companies including Altria,30 BAT,31323334 Imperial Tobacco,35 Japan Tobacco International (JTI),363738 and Philip Morris International (PMI).3940

The companies’ reports have been criticised by independent experts. According to Dr Athena Ramos, from the University of Nebraska Medical Centre, CSR programmes that propose to address child labour “represent more of a public relations strategy that any real meaningful change in practice” and disincentivise external monitoring efforts, especially in low and middle income countries (LMICs).6 Other researchers have argued that CSR efforts implemented by TTCs in Malawi act to “enhance corporate reputations and distract public attention from how they profit from low wages and cheap tobacco”.3

Indeed, critical research concerning tobacco industry CSR programmes claim that TTCs have “failed to take meaningful steps to prevent child labour”41 and there has been no genuine commitment to addressing the issue. Some academics have suggested that, instead of investing in CSR programmes with dubious efficacy, the industry could more effectively “rectify [its] harmful business practices by establishing and enforcing a policy that they would not purchase any tobacco grown using child labour” or “having third parties perform audits on farms from which they buy tobacco leaves”.341

CSR Initiative Focus Areas

TTCs fund and organise a variety of CSR initiatives with the nominal aim of eradicating hazardous child labour from their supply chains. These programmes have several common themes: supporting the education of child labourers; providing training, education and raise awareness to tobacco farmers of the risks of child labour; enhancing the welfare and economic empowerment of tobacco farming communities; and strengthening legal and regulatory frameworks to reduce child labour.


CSR initiatives around education of children and farmers are widespread throughout the tobacco industry. A broad range of programmes have been implemented to support the education of child labourers including after school activities, education and health centres, vocational skills training, providing school meals, community-based childcare centres, teaching support, additional school classes, school kits, scholarships and summer school. Examples of some of these types of initiatives are demonstrated in Brazil,3831 Mexico,3442 Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania,38 Argentina,39 Indonesia,43 India44 and Pakistan.39 Education-focused CSR efforts also focus on providing training and raising awareness to adult tobacco farmers on the harms of child labour. These programmes take place in the form of capacity building, human rights training, anti-child labour clubs, community labour committees, community events and raising awareness of the importance of schooling for children, safety on the farms and harms of hazardous work to children. Examples of some of these types of initiatives are demonstrated in Brazil,31 Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania,38 Turkey,4039 Argentina,40 Indonesia4339 and Pakistan.39

Tobacco companies’ actions have been extensively critiqued. Tobacco industry CSR reporting often focuses on communicating individual success stories45 or uses general reporting of what the tobacco company has done on a case-by-case basis. An example is the “Our Impact” section of JTI’s 2019 ARISE Annual Review.38

Overarchingly, child labour-focused CSR initiatives help enhance and protect the reputation of the tobacco industry. These programmes facilitate “business as usual” and enable tobacco companies to avoid making “fundamental changes” to their supply chains and business processes.4647 Until changes to TTCs business practices are enforced, no definitive progress will be made.

Just as the industry has been criticised for failing to address child labour, so too has the ECLT. The ECLT, a tobacco industry front group which seeks to address child labour,41 has implemented a series of activities which it says help raise awareness among farmers in tobacco growing communities of the dangers of child labour. A STOP report on ECLT has criticised its programmes, including educational awareness raising to farmers, for having “done little to redress or target the structural issues afflicting these [tobacco growing] regions”.45 These programmes have been implemented in Malawi,48 Mozambique,49 Tanzania50 and Uganda.51

If TTC programmes were to be in any way effective at tackling child labour, academics who specialise in this field have proposed that “a standardised set of indicators” need to be established to enable companies and industries to compare and measure improvements and progress of their efforts across their supply chains.46 Indicators such as reporting on patterns, prevalence and risks of child labour,46 applied across all CSR initiatives would enable evaluation of the effectiveness of initiatives purportedly designed to address the issue.

Economic Empowerment

Another common area for tobacco company CSR initiatives is supposed economic empowerment for farmers. The tobacco industry frames tobacco farming as a livelihood which promises high rates of return for investing in tobacco crops and provides long-term benefits to smallholder farmers.

It has promoted arguments that highlight the supposed economic prosperity of farming tobacco and the opportunity it provides to empower impoverished communities.52 This sentiment is strongly present in the main TTCs sustainability reports.43365354

Imperial Brands, for example, has initiated Leaf Partnership Projects which it says focus on enhancing “farmer welfare and income” which in turn “reduces labour requirements” and mitigates “the potential reliance on child labour”.55 Both JTI and PMI have established village loans and savings groups projects as socioeconomic empowerment activities across their operating countries, including Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia. These initiatives aim to support farming families in being able to send their children to school, as opposed to relying on their labour.4038

Yet in reality, the contract growing system keeps farmers impoverished and dependent on tobacco companies and their leaf sourcing affiliates for seeds, agrochemicals and pricing.56 Tobacco farmers and their children are “trapped in a cycle of poverty” as their earnings from their tobacco crop frequently do not cover the cost of their loans. Families therefore become indebted and have to rely on the use of child labour.25

The tobacco industry’s CSR initiatives do not effectively solve the systemic and structural issues of the contracted growing system, indebted labour cycle or lack of diverse livelihoods which have created chronic economic issues for smallholder farmers. Read more about the real economic impacts of tobacco cultivation on our Tobacco Farming page.

Legal and Regulatory Frameworks

Tobacco companies use CSR programmes, which include strengthening their own internal legal and regulatory frameworks to address child labour, as a form of private governance. This form of self-regulation is used by a wide array of actors, including private businesses like tobacco companies.57

There are many examples in the tobacco industry of companies practicing private governance in their CSR programmes and labour practices. For example: Altria conducts “Social Compliance Audits”;58 Imperial brands has established a “Correction Plan” to respond to instances of child labour found in its auditing process;59 and PMI, under its Agricultural Labour Practices (ALP) programme, routinely self-identify, record and monitor child labour incidents in its supply chain.43

In 2011, JTI launched the “Achieving Reduction of Child Labor in Support of Education” (ARISE) programme. This was its flagship initiative to end child labour in its supply chain. Within the ARISE programme, JTI has introduced its own “Child Labour Monitoring System” to identify cases of child labour and monitor the impact of its CSR initiatives. It states it “provides end-to-end transparency for supply chain management”. In addition to this private auditing, the programme focuses on “legal and regulatory frameworks”. JTI says it works alongside government and “advocate[s] for the enactment of policies and regulations that support the reduction of child labor”. The company’s 2019 ARISE Annual Review states that between 2011-2019, it has been actively involved in the development of 74 government policies and plans. In 2019 alone, ARISE had input on eight policies centred on child labour comprising of four in Brazil, two in Zambia and two in Malawi.38 Collaboration through child labour CSR can be seen as a proactive move by JTI to engage with the government to help avoid specific policy regulation and influence policy decisions around child labour issues.60 This also demonstrates how the tobacco industry use CSR programmes to proliferate access points to policymakers at a variety of places in its supply chain. Increased tobacco company presence along the supply chain provides the industry with greater opportunity to influence policymaking and government decisions.61

Critically, reports of these programmes do not comment on the effectiveness of their initiatives in tackling the root issue of child labour. Rather, these initiatives champion the ability of tobacco companies to provide a management process for dealing with child labour incidents.

For example, in 2002 PMI launched the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) programme – later revised in 2011 to include the Agricultural Labour Practices (ALP) code62 – which purportedly focuses on sustainable farming and seeks to address child labour issues.6364 The programme is internally evaluated using monitoring by PMI employed field technicians and “external assessments” conducted by “specialist supply chain auditor” Control Union. While the GAP programme is capable of documenting child labour complaints that arise in its supply chain, it fails to detail the actual numbers of child labourers. Instead, it focuses on reporting and allegedly resolving child labour “incidents” through a managerial process.40 As their CSR efforts do not measure or manage the effectiveness of each child labour initiative, tobacco companies cannot state that child labour is decreasing overall.

Michael Bloomfield, a member of the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath, describes the different levels of private governance and how they are used strategically by companies. There is “first-party” private governance which involves commitments which businesses voluntarily make, such as CSR efforts, and is viewed as the weakest form of private governance as they are non-binding. “Second-party” private governance is specific to an industry as opposed to one company but is strengthened through the involvement and commitment of multiple companies within the industry.65 This form of private governance is demonstrated in the tobacco industry by industry-wide self-governance initiatives. For example, similar to the GAP programme, the Sustainable Tobacco Programme (STP) focuses in part on child labour prevention. Launched in April 2016, the STP sought to provide a “single sustainability programme for the tobacco industry” and has since been “adopted by all major global tobacco manufacturers and their leaf suppliers”.66 The industry-wide initiative is solely managed by independent supply chain consultant AB Sustain, a subsidiary of AB Agri.67

Auditing by industries of their own processes have been shown to be ineffective methods of addressing labour exploitation in supply chains.6869 Industry self-auditing allows companies to potentially “manipulate and cheat” the data to hide unfair labour practices.70 Self-regulation, including codes and monitoring programmes such as GAP and STP, which are controlled by the industry itself, have been criticised as “acts of window-dressing” that “lack transparency, accountability, and thus [are] deprived of any legitimacy”.71 As the industry has control and authority over private governance initiatives like CSR programmes, the auditing and monitoring of its efforts lacks external validation so should not be wholly accepted.46 For more information on the STP and GAP programmes and issues of legitimacy see our Greenwashing page.

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