How The Guardian puts children at risk by not telling the whole story.
For immediate release, Geneva, 19 July 2018
Recent heightened public attention on the unacceptable situations faced by children and families working in tobacco growing shines a light on violations of human rights otherwise largely and historically kept in darkness.
The blunt truth is that the health, safety and development of millions of children is at risk every day in countries from Malawi, to Mexico, Indonesia to the US. Though the spotlight is turned on the children working in tobacco fields, it is crucial to understand that this is a major threat to 152 million of the world’s children, in every sector and every region around the world, strongly linked to poverty, cultural norms, lack of access to education, disasters and conflicts. It is not limited to a single supply chain, or the sole responsibility of multi-national companies.
The international community must not be afraid to recognise and openly discuss child labour through inclusive collective stakeholder dialogues, as is mandated by the Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is the only way to make sustainable and genuine steps forward, which bring about institutional and generational change.
Nonetheless, there is a significant piece of the narrative missing in recent highly-publicised articles such as The Guardian’s piece Child labour rampant in tobacco industry, which fundamentally and conveniently fails to tell the whole story. The Guardian must, therefore, be held accountable for this failing.
The article, citing Vera Da Costa e Silva, head the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), states that child labour in tobacco agriculture is “a scandal for which the multinational companies have a direct responsibility.” This assertion is true, in terms of businesses’ responsibly to respect human rights in all of their activities. This assertion is also limited and lacking context. It is potentially a real and present threat to the livelihoods of agricultural communities comprised of over 40 million farmers in 124 countries where tobacco is grown around the world.
Concerns about a Supply Chain Approach against Child Labour
The Guardian’s series of articles, whether on purpose or by omission, wrongly promotes a supply chain approach to fighting child labour in tobacco growing, which goes against the comprehensive area-based approach of the UN agencies that deal with labour rights and agriculture, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The ECLT Foundation reached out to the author of the article, Sarah Boseley, explaining our concerns and asking for any comment. Ms Boseley responded that “the focus of our coverage was the responsibility of the big tobacco firms” this explains the supply-chain approach but doesn’t address concerns about the limited narrative of the article.
The ECLT Foundation and other child labour and children’s rights experts, including The Global March against Child Labour, Stop Child Labour Coalition, UNICEF, The UN Global Compact and Save the Children International, agree with the ILO and the FAO that collaborative, multi-stakeholder area-based approaches produce measurable and sustainable results against child labour.
Isolating the tobacco supply chain, or any single supply chain, increases the risk of “children simply moving from one supply chain to another, or into a more hidden form of child labour, or, if they are below the minimum age for work, from moving simply from hazardous to non-hazardous child labour” (ILO 2017).
This is the inconvenient truth that neither The Guardian nor Vera Da Costa e Silva will publicly address. This makes the articles reductive and irresponsible, giving readers an agenda-driven, over-simplified glimpse of child labour in agriculture, which inconsistent with the clear, global mandate for integrated and cooperative solutions set out for the world in the SDGs.
At best, this is biased, narrow reporting, which goes against internationally-recognised best practice for fighting child labour. When the lives and livelihoods of an estimated 1.1 billion people depend on agriculture, including tobacco growing, any reporting bias from a major newspaper must be highlighted and challenged.
At worst, the articles place the agenda of the World Health Organization’s tobacco-control programme above other internationally-accepted treaties, which guarantee the full range fundamental rights including development, education, health and decent work.
By prioritising evidence provided by World Health Organization experts, rather than experts in children’s rights, rural development or decent work, the Guardian seems to have forgotten the lesson it understood in the 2012 article, namely that “Eliminating child labour and improving conditions within our supply chains must be a collaborative process with all stakeholders taking on responsibility.” Governments, businesses, unions, employers’ associations, civil society, communities and children themselves all have a role to play (UNGPs, ILO).
Children, farmers and families working in tobacco growing have the right to the same support that those farming other crops do. Governments of nations that depend heavily on tobacco agriculture must be encouraged and enabled to develop and implement strong and comprehensive policies to fight child labour, promote decent work and uphold the human rights of all of their citizens. Including tobacco along with all other agricultural sectors, governments, unions, and other stakeholders, and expecting concrete actions against child labour is the sustainable way forward.
Anything short of this risks violating ILO Convention 111 against discrimination, which guarantees the “equality of opportunity and treatment in employment or occupation” for all workers. The Guardian also fails to consider this angle.
There are many lenses through which to examine the problem of child labour in tobacco agriculture, including public health, rural development, creating shared value, or safeguarding children’s rights. In the end, the only acceptable approach is one that favours children and that promises to best promote all children’s rights, including their right to health, as well as decent work for all workers.
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About the ECLT Foundation
The ECLT Foundation is committed to collaborative solutions for children and their families that combat the root causes of child labour in tobacco-growing communities.
We advocate for strong policies, share best practices to multiply our impact, and engage rural families so they can benefit from farming while ensuring that their children are healthy, educated, safe from exploitation, and encouraged to reach their full potential.
Based in Geneva since 2000, ECLT is an independent Swiss foundation with UN ECOSOC Special Consultative Status.