Despite Indonesian law prohibiting child labour in hazardous industries, the rights group documented dozens of cases of minors — some as young as eight — falling ill from handling raw tobacco and mixing pesticides with their bare hands.
Much of the tobacco harvested from the roughly 500,000 plantations across Indonesia is for the domestic market, where smoking rates are among the world’s highest.
But one quarter of all Indonesian tobacco is exported and sold overseas by multinational cigarette giants, Human Rights Watch child advocacy director Jo Becker told AFP.
“A smoker who is lighting up a Dunhill or a Lucky Strike or some other cigarette in Europe or the United States could well be smoking a cigarette that was made by child labour in Indonesia,” Becker said.
Many young labourers described feeling dizzy, nauseous and vomiting after long days working in the fields, symptoms associated with “green tobacco sickness”, a type of nicotine poisoning, according to HRW’s new report.
Nicotine contained in tobacco plants is readily absorbed through the skin when handled, and is particularly harmful for children, Becker said.
“I vomited in the fields and my dad told me to go home and rest. I was sick for two days,” a 12-year-old girl from East Java, on the main island of Java, told the rights watchdog, who withheld her identity.
The government is being urged to prohibit children under 18 from working with tobacco. The standard minimum working age is 15, but Indonesia’s Child Protection Commission concedes enforcing the law is difficult.
“Unfortunately these rules are not properly implemented in the fields,” Erlinda, a senior official at the commission, told AFP.
None of the major companies purchasing tobacco in Indonesia had policies “sufficient to ensure that children are protected”, Human Rights Watch wrote in its report.
Tobacco is purchased either directly from suppliers or via the open market, which is far more opaque and makes tracing origin difficult.
Philip Morris International — which owns Indonesian cigarette giant Sampoerna — has shifted towards sourcing the majority of its tobacco directly in recent years, allowing it to tackle child labour at the farm level but not rule it out entirely.
“If we don’t know exactly who is producing that tobacco, what are the conditions, then we cannot provide that assurance,” the company’s international sustainability officer Miguel Coleta told AFP.
British American Tobacco, which owns Indonesian subsidiary Bentoel as well as the Lucky Strike and Dunhill cigarette brands, said it did not employ children in any operations worldwide and warned its suppliers against doing so.
Three of Indonesia’s largest tobacco companies — Djarum, Gudang Garam and Wismilak — did not reply to repeated requests for comment.