LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Several of the world's biggest tobacco companies pledged on Wednesday to end child labour in their supply chains, a landmark agreement a rights group said could protect thousands of children from hazardous work in tobacco fields.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it was the first time that members of the tobacco industry had jointly agreed to abide by international labour law, which prohibits hazardous work by children under 18 and the employment of children under 15.
Philip Morris International, Japan Tobacco International and British American Tobacco were among the firms that signed the pledge, which was announced by the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing (ECLT) Foundation, an industry-supported initiative based in Geneva.
"The impact of the new pledge could be especially significant in the United States, which has some of the most lax labour laws in the world when it comes to children working in agriculture," Jo Becker, HRW children's rights advocacy director, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
United States law permits children as young as 12 to work unlimited hours outside of school on a farm of any size with parental permission, according to HRW.
Under the pledge, ECLT member companies will need to ensure that growers in their supply chains do not employ children under 15.
HRW said that some companies and growers' associations already had individual child labour policies that met or exceeded such standards, but others did not.
Becker said the pledge represented a big step in the right direction for the industry, but warned that significant gaps remained.
"Not all tobacco companies are ECLT members, so there are a few key players, such as China National [Tobacco Corporation] and Reynolds Tobacco Company, who are not part of the pledge.
"More worryingly, the pledge defers to national regulations when defining what constitutes hazardous labour, meaning that the work for those aged 15 to 18 is at the discretion of each grower or company," Becker said.
In the United States, child labour laws have no special provisions for the unique hazards of handling tobacco, leaving children at risk of nicotine poisoning, Becker said.
An HRW report in May documented hazardous child labour on tobacco farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, four states that account for 90 percent of the tobacco grown in the United States.
Children reported vomiting, nausea, headaches and dizziness while working on tobacco farms, all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, the report found.
Many said they worked 60-hour weeks without overtime pay, often in extreme heat, without shade or sufficient breaks, and wore no, or inadequate, protective gear.
The International Labour Organisation said it hoped the pledge would lead to greater and ever more coherent efforts to end child labour in all its forms in tobacco-growing communities worldwide.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Tim Pearce)