Nigeria: Child slavery on Nigeria tobacco farms

Children Sorting Tobacco leavesFor  the child farmers in Irawo Owode, a sleepy tobacco farming community in Oyo state Nigeria the day began early. There is only one item on the agenda for each day and that is to report to the tobacco farms at seven in the morning and would terminate in another twelve hours. The ‘farmers’ trooped out in a convoy towards the tobacco farms  about a mile away.  To coordinate this crowd is Fatai Amusan. He is twenty years old and the most experienced  farmer of the children.

“ This is how we work everyday. BAT (British American Tobacco), does not want us to leave the farm they want us to work  here from 7:am to 7 :pm. That is strategic to come before the sun comes up and leave after it sets. Anytime some of their officials are here and they met nobody, there is always a complaint.”  Amusan said during a visit to the tobacco farm.

Child farmers

Unlike other food crops, tobacco farming is no mean task; it involves endless weeding and painstaking application of skill and manpower  for  the leaves will survive.  In the morning, the children are hard at work, either applying the necessary fertilizers or insecticide to the plants in the nursery or busy weeding and transplanting the plants from the nursery to the field.  Another difficult aspect is the seemingly endless trip to the stream a few meters from the plantation. This is done by children under  ten years old who are too young to weed. One of the kids explained the process involved in the early stages of planting.  “This is the most sensitive time and it requires a lot of efforts. What we do now will determine the quality of the leaves at the end and if the leaves are not of good quality, then you will never be able to pay your debts.”

Indeed it has become a common trend for tobacco farmers in the developing world to be highly indebted to the tobacco company. Amusan  explained how his parent debts to BAT turned him into a farmer. “When BAT officials come, they want to know if you are ready to start the business. Then they make available a form of loan for the seeds, the fertilizer and every other thing that you need. Sometimes we would have amassed about N250,000($1,600) debts even before we began to plant.”

Children on BAT Farms

This is the beginning of the cycle of poverty often experienced by tobacco farmers in the developing countries.  It was gathered that  determination of the prices of tobacco leaves does not come from the farmers but from BAT. “After each harvest, we will take the leaves to Ago Are where BAT has their warehouse and the officials would weigh what you have brought according to the quality  of the leaves. Whatever you have will be deducted from the debts you have acquired and many times the balance would have to be paid through the next harvest” Amusan explained. But it is curious though that while the prices paid for the leaves always depreciate the prices of seedlings and other supplies from BAT always appreciates. “ our fathers have talked to the officials about this matter of low prices for the leaves, but BAT always tell them that things will improve soon” one of the kids said.

Instructively, trapped in an endless cycle of debts , the farmers have no choice but to enlist  the services of their children and none is excluded. “ I pay my children who work for me”  Pa Amusan,the oldest farmer in the community said. When asked how much the children earn  on the tobacco fields, he looked up and pointed at an 11 year old “like this one, I can pay her N100.00 (80 cents)  per day. It depends on how big they are , because that would tell how much they can work.”

But the children explained that the money is never the motivation for the work. “ Many of the boys you see on these farms are only helping their parents because many of them are old and cannot do the farm work alone. “ how will our parents feed us if they cannot pay their debts on the tobacco leaves and make money. Everybody has to sacrifice and that is why we have decided to help.”

It was a huge sacrifice.  School work suffered.  In a farming community that cannot boast of the best facilities for conducive learning, the children would have to split their time between the tobacco farms and the school. Some of the kids insist that they still attend the local school and have not dropped out completely. “We still go to school here. What we do is that we come here in the morning before school and return here after school.”

The challenge of the task the children face is telling. At the beginning of most planting season, they have to go in search of fertile land since most of the farming lands are barren. Every search takes them further away from the village. When a suitable land is found then the cultivation starts. After a successful transplant the bigger task of weeding and fumigation will start.  “At that stage, it is most critical part. We have to continually weed the leaves; we cannot afford to be lazy about it because BAT will be angry. A mistake at this point will be costly.  In fact they asked us to treat the leaves like a child. It is our first born.” Amusan said.

BAT has a long history of encouraging child labour on many of its farms in the developing world. In Malawi, for instance which is reputed as one of the poorest countries in the world has one of the  biggest tobacco farming estates in African, child slavery is an everyday phenomenon.   According to a study by the Centre  for Tobacco Control Research and Education (CTCRE)  based at the University of California, a minimum of 78,000 children are working on full or part term basis in the tobacco fields. According to a survey by CTCRE, 45% of the chid workers are between 10-14 years of age and 55% are 7-9 years old.  It also said tobacco companies have received nearly $40 million in revenues over a period of four years from using unpaid child labourers.

How children became tobacco slaves in Malawi is instructive.  The tobacco business is run like an estate. A rich landowner gets the deal from BAT and allocates land to tenant farmers to cultivate tobacco. The landowner provides seedlings and other logistics in loan which is deduced from the price of the leaves after harvest. More often, these tenant farmers have no profits after each harvest and in order to be able to achieve the basic necessity of life, children are dragged into the tobacco farms as unpaid labour.

Though the child labour situation in Nigeria is not yet up to the level of Malawi, there are disturbing scenarios to suggest Nigeria may not be too far from that brink. According to Amusa, the children are largely responsible for the farming of tobacco plants to the last stage of curing and packaging.  When the farm was visited the children were excited to show off their expertise at tobacco farming. Going through the rows of tender, young  tobacco plants they explained how the leaves survive the initial weeks.  “Come and look at this. We just reset this, we transplanted it from that point to this place which is the second planting place. Now, there is no evidence that it will survive, but after we have removed the shade and expose it to sun for two days ,then it will take root.”

After harvest, the children are also responsible  for curing the leaves before they are sold to the tobacco company “ This is the barn where we cure. We lit the fire through that furnace and after about five minutes the heat becomes unbearable. It is not advisable to stay in this barn for more than five minutes but most times we have to do that.” Amusa explained.

Children are put at a particular risk because growing tobacco exposes them to damaging problems  like pesticide exposure to nicotine poisoning.   But are the children aware of the great danger they are exposed to farming tobacco leaves and the ultimate harm the end product causes.  All replied in the negative. Also when asked if they knew that cigarettes were made from tobacco leaves Amusa replied. “That was our concern, but when  we mentioned it to BAT we were told that was not true. BAT said there are over  100 products which were good for human consumption that the leaves are used for. BAT said they don’t produce cigarettes. But when you look at a dried tobacco leaf, you will see that it resembles what you normally see in cigarettes. We are very confused.”

BAT chairman, Jan du Plessis said the company is tackling child labour problems. “We work with farmers through our leaf growing programmes to try and eliminate child labour, we have established the pioneering Elimination of Child Labour in Tobacco growing Foundation in partnership with the  International Tobacco Growers Association and the trades Unions in our sector.”

BAT also listed on its website “We are committed to the principles of protecting children from child labour exploitation, believing that their development- as well as  that of their communities and countries- is best served through education, not child labour. We do not employ children in our operations.”

Managing Director of BAT Nigeria Nick Hales also once said at a conference “We insist that none of our farmers uses child labour at all. We actually held a conference on that in Abuja recently- if any farmer does use child labour, then he is no longer our farmer. We are a responsible company.

When  contacted the Head of communication BAT Nigeria Aliyu Maaji, in an email response directed the reporter to his old interview in the media, preferring not to give any response. But  Hales assertion fell flat when contrasted with  the reality in the tobacco growing communities. Child labour is rampant and BAT officials knew about it. “ The officials always come here in the planting season, even the big man in the office, when we make mistake, they shout on us and threaten us. They do not want us to be lazy at all in the farm.” One of the child farmers said.

BAT has a long standing links to Nigeria. Its business presence dates back to around 1911. Its ties became closer when it signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Nigerian government to establish a $150 million cigarette manufacturing factory in Ibadan Oyo state.

Akinbode Oluwafemi of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FOEN) said  the pauperization of tobacco farmers by BAT is largely responsible for the emerging trend of child labour on the tobacco farms. “ BAT must abide by its own code of conduct and eliminate all forms of abuse not only on the tobacco farms but also change its marketing strategy of targeting Nigerian children in the hope of recruiting them as lifelong cigarette smokers.”

In the months to come,  faced with legislations and campaigns by anti tobacco activists whose mould seem to swell by the day, BAT  may have to submit to stringent public  health control in its marketing and distribution of its product. That shouldn’t be a problem however to the  multinational company as long as business is allowed to go on. Meanwhile at the tobacco farms more children will end up on the farms for the paltry sum they will get out of a day’s work. To Pa Amusan, he is only “empowering the kids.” – By Seun Akioye/Oyo State Nigeria