By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - British American Tobacco (BAT), the world's second biggest cigarette company, vowed on Thursday to investigate some of its supply farms in Bangladesh after a Swedish campaign group uncovered the use of child workers to grow and process tobacco.
Swedwatch, which surveyed three tobacco farming districts in Bangladesh, said it found child labour was "widespread" in farms supplying BAT and its local subsidiary British American Tobacco Bangladesh, jeopardising their health and education.
"Girls and boys of all ages are responsible for irrigating and levelling the field. Some of them carry loads as well and bring seedlings from the bed to the field," said the study, which was conducted between July 2015 and May 2016.
"After harvesting, they break the leaves, cut the stems, and help to monitor the kiln temperature while curing."
Swedwatch said children were not only pulled out of school to work for up to 16 hours a day during the harvest season but were also engaged in tasks that exposed them to green tobacco plants, dust from tobacco and smoke from kiln drying.
Group Head of Corporate Affairs at British American Tobacco Simon Cleverly told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the company had investigated the report's findings, including allegations of unfair contracts to farmers, but found no evidence of any human rights violations.
He said BAT's investigations were consistent with the findings of several independent studies commissioned by BAT to look into tobacco growing and rural livelihoods in Bangladesh that found the company has a positive socio-economic impact.
But Cleverly said BAT, the maker of Lucky Strike and Dunhill cigarettes, has asked Swedwatch for details of the farm locations where children were said to be working so the company can investigate further and act if necessary.
"We believe this report presents a misleading and inaccurate view of our tobacco leaf farming supply chain in Bangladesh, a country where we have a long-standing history of working with farmers and the government for mutual benefit," said Cleverly.
"I FEEL WEAK"
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), over five million children aged between 5 and 17 years are engaged in some kind of employment in Bangladesh.
For although Bangladesh laws set a minimum working age of 14, poverty causes many families to send children to work.
But UNICEF estimates 93 percent of child labourers work in the informal sector, saying this makes enforcement of labour laws virtually impossible.
Almost half of working children are believed employed in the farm sector, which is considered the most dangerous in terms of work-related fatalities and occupational diseases due to sharp tools, dangerous machinery, and use of agro chemicals.
The Swedwatch report said children working in Bangladesh's tobacco farms in Bandarban, Chakoria and Lalmonirhat districts were no exception and faced nicotine absorption through the skin as well as pesticide exposure due to no protective equipment.
"I cannot sleep or eat regularly and that leads to other health problems. I feel weak," said one boy, 16, in the report.
"When I work in front of the kiln, my eyes burn, I feel pain in my chest and I cough a lot," he added, describing the process of curing tobacco leaves which involves heating them in a kiln.
The study, based on interviews with over 150 people including farmers, government officials, community leaders and activists, also found tobacco work had an adverse impact on schooling and future prospects as children were pulled out of class to work.
"The report urges BAT and other tobacco companies to remove the 'smokescreens' over their supply chains by publishing impact assessments and third party audits, and to take immediate action to protect people and the environment," Swedwatch said.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)