Decent work for all and sustainable economic growth

To the overview

At the heart of the United Nations' eighth Sustainable Development Goal is the promotion of sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all. The tobacco industry employs about 100 million people worldwide; however, most of these jobs are not dream jobs.[1]

The 40 million growers on tobacco plantations – mostly in poor or developing countries like Malawi, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, China, and Brazil – are particularly disadvantaged. They are forced to buy expensive seedlings, fertilisers, and pesticides to maintain their crops. At the same time, they receive only a small return from the wholesalers who buy their tobacco leaves on behalf of the big cigarette manufacturers while pushing prices ever lower.

The average income of a tobacco farmer in Malawi for 10 months of hard work is only CHF 247.[2] In some countries such as Lebanon, tobacco cultivation would not even turn a profit for the farmers without government subsidies.[3] This situation drives farmers into a hopeless spiral of debt. Therefore, many of them have children, women, or migrants working on their farms under slave-like conditions.

About 1.3 million children work on tobacco plantations in just a few tobacco-producing countries: Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Indonesia, and Kazakhstan.[4] In early 2021, the Continental Tobacco Alliance, one of Brazil's largest tobacco exporters, was put on trial, accused of keeping workers – including minors – in slave-like conditions on its plantations.[5]

This phenomenon is by no means confined to under-resourced countries. In southern Italy, day labourers are recruited on the streets to work for a pittance on tobacco plantations.[6] In the US southeastern states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina – the country's main tobacco-growing region – many children are found on the farms.[7]

Even in Switzerland, tobacco farmers continue to use minors as harvest workers. In a 2018 advertisement on the job board, young tobacco pickers were sought to work on a farm in the canton of Vaud with this announcement: "They should be at least 15 years old and able to work in difficult conditions." The pay? Between CHF 8.- and 15.- an hour, depending on the quality of the work.[8]

Workers on tobacco plantations are not only poorly paid, they are also exposed to serious health risks such as Green Tobacco Sickness, a form of nicotine poisoning.[9] They also run the risk of ingesting dangerous levels of pesticides. In Kenya, 26% of tobacco farmers report symptoms of poisoning from these chemicals.[10]

Workers in cigarette factories fare little better. They are forced to breathe in harmful tobacco dust for excruciatingly long hours and often develop work-related illnesses. In Bangladesh, factories that produce cheap rolled cigarillos – so-called beedis – could not exist without the many children they employ for a pittance.[11]

All this is in striking contrast to the high salaries paid to employees of the major cigarette manufacturers in the wealthy countries where they are headquartered. Supposedly, employers in such industries with a bad ethical reputation have to pay an "immorality bonus" in order to get qualified staff.[12] An executive at Philip Morris International in Neuchâtel gets an annual salary of almost CHF 181,000 – not including bonuses – which is 732 times what a tobacco farmer in Malawi earns, according to the Glassdoor website.[13]

Workers in the lower echelons of these corporations, on the other hand, may soon have to fear for their jobs in the wake of the relocation of part of the production to countries with lower wage levels and the automation of cigarette manufacturing. The Philip Morris factory in Bergen op Zoom, the Netherlands, produces nine billion cigarettes a year with only 1,900 employees.[14]

Tobacco not only has a negative impact on access to decent work, but also on overall economic growth. Health expenditures, premature deaths, and the productivity losses caused by using tobacco costs the global economy USD 2 trillion annually, or 2% of its GDP. In Switzerland, the corresponding amount is CHF 5 billion.[15]

Despite this worrying record, the tobacco industry continues to cultivate the image of a provider of safe, well-paid jobs. "Tobacco farming makes an important contribution to improving the living conditions, health, and resilience of the farmers who devote themselves to it," promises British American Tobacco in a richly illustrated study volume.[16] Philip Morris, for its part, describes in detail the emancipation-promoting importance of employing women on its plantations.[17]

Aware of the damage to their image they have to contend with in view of the high proportion of child labour in their supply chain, in the year 2000, the cigarette manufacturers founded in Geneva an NGO, the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco-Growing Foundation (ECLT). All the big tobacco producers are represented on its board of directors, and they alone contribute to the foundation's budget of USD 5.7 million.[18]

Although the stated goal of the NGO is to abolish child labour on the plantations, this body mainly serves as a propaganda tool for the cigarette industry. In April 2021, the foundation joined the United Nations Global Compact, an initiative to encourage companies to act responsibly. Through this platform, it can now influence the bodies of the United Nations. The tobacco industry is always most powerful where it operates in secret.



[3] K. Hamade, “Tobacco Leaf Farming in Lebanon: Why Marginalized Farmers Need a Better Option” in Tobacco Control and Tobacco Farming: Separating Myth from Reality, edited by W. Leppan, N. Lecours and D. Buckles, London: Anthem Press, 2014







[10] Ohayo-Mitoko, G. J.; Kromhout, H.; Simwa, J. M.; Boleij, J. S.; Heederik, D. (2000): Self reported symptoms and inhibition of acetylcholinesterase activity among Kenyan agricultural workers. In Occupational and environmental medicine 57 (3), pp. 195–200. DOI: 10.1136/oem.57.3.195.

[11] Kim, J., Rana, S., Lee, W., Haque, S. E., & Yoon, J.-H. (2020, June). How the Bidi Tobacco Industry Harms Child-workers: Results From a Walk-through and Quantitative Survey. Safety and Health at Work. Elsevier BV.