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Tobacco fields take toll on Indonesian children

In a country that is the world’s fifth-largest tobacco producer, children work despite labour laws

  • Julaeping Putri, 14, whohas worked in Beleke’s tobacco fields from a young age.Image Credit: The Guardian
  • A tobacco worker and family and friends in Lombok, IndonesiaImage Credit: The Guardian
Gulf News

As a young girl, Julaeping Putri loved to play, even take naps, among the fresh mounds of tobacco leaves piled around her home on the Indonesian island of Lombok.

Her mother, Nurul Huda, thought nothing of it at the time. She liked having the stacks of leaves there too — a reminder it had been a plentiful, lucrative harvest.

From as young as three, Julaeping, or Eping for short, said she would help her parents out in the field, planting the small Virginia tobacco saplings, mixing the fertiliser, watering the plants.

In harvest season, Eping and her friends would spend hours after school tying the tobacco leaves on to large poles, getting them ready for the “ovens”, village smokehouses where the leaves are smoked dry for almost a week. Sometimes they would play a game, racing each other to see who could do it the fastest.

But it wasn’t always fun. A few times during the harvest Eping felt so ill she collapsed. Her mother, too busy with the yield to take her to hospital, called in the local nurse to give her an injection.

In the decade since, her health problems have never really gone away. “Since second grade, I have been sick in the chest, and then sometimes it is hard to breathe,” says Eping, now 14.

It’s always worse in tobacco harvest season, she says, especially when they unfurl the leaves from the ovens, when the smell of tobacco is most pungent.

“I have felt like throwing up before because the tobacco smell is so strong. It happens often, that you want to keep throwing up,” she says, “After opening up the leaves, I feel sick in the chest and my heart starts to beat very fast.”

According to a 2016 report by Human Right Watch entitled The Harvest Is in My Blood, thousands of children work in Indonesia’s tobacco industry, where they are exposed to serious health risks.

Based on interviews with more than 130 children, the report notes that symptoms described, such as vomiting and nausea, are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, caused by contact with tobacco plants and leaves.

Last year Eping’s parents took her to the doctor to find out if her repeated complaint, a tightness in her chest and shortness of breath, was connected to her exposure to tobacco.

Her elder brother Jovi, 28, laughs scathingly when asked about the diagnosis.

“The doctors here aren’t brave enough to be honest. They don’t say it is related to tobacco but we know,” he says, as he draws on a cigarette himself. “Maybe brave is not the right word. Maybe they are afraid there might be a demonstration.”

Tobacco has long been big business in Indonesia. According to research by Euromonitor International, Indonesia produced 269.2 billion cigarettes in 2015, while the market was valued at 231.3 trillion rupiah (GBP12.4 billion, $16.6 billion at current exchange rates).

Across the country tobacco advertising and smoking is widespread — for Indonesian men, lighting up is considered the uncontroversial norm. Rules are so lax and cigarettes so cheap — one packet is less than Dh10 — that many start from an early age.

Indonesia is the world’s fifth-largest tobacco producer, with the world’s second-largest tobacco market after China and more than 65 million smokers as of 2013 .

With such a large presence, the industry is a powerful lobby in Indonesia and campaigners say it is quick to push back against pressure.

In Beleke, residents talk of the financial benefits of tobacco to the village. Next to rice and corn, tobacco is the most lucrative crop but it can only be grown in the dry season, from about May to September.

Home to about 3,000 families, the village is spread across fields of brilliant green rice paddies that become replaced entirely with tobacco plants in the growing season.

About 80 per cent of Beleke residents are farmers, and during tobacco season the village is a hub of activity. There are about 20 “ovens” in the village and during the harvest they smoke continually, day and night.

“No one stays home in harvesting season. You find people young and old around the ovens and in the fields. Everyone is collecting money and everyone is happy about that,” says Anggi, 42, a farmer.

Almost all the children above the age of four work — some begrudgingly because their parents ask them to, others because they want to earn money.

“My daughter helps me in the field, putting the fertiliser on the trees and also carrying the water,” said Anggi. “That is the picture of all the mothers and farmers who have children in the village.”

For almost two months during the harvest, carts of tobacco leaves are hauled into the village and the children are called in to help prepare them for the smokehouses, knitting them on to large sticks and getting paid by the stick.

Some of the children I meet talk about what they can get with the money from tobacco work, but they also describe long hours. “I like doing it because I get money,” says Aning, age 12, who first started working six years ago. “I can buy snacks at school, or toys, like a doll. I start after school, from midday until about 5pm. I can earn about Rp 15,000 (Dh38) and I do that every day in the season.”

Aning’s best friend is only six years old, but last year he worked so hard during the tobacco season that he saved 1m rupiah. “If I keep working in the night, I can get Rp 50,000. After praying time at 7.30pm, I work until about midnight,” he says. “School starts at 8 in the morning. So we are often late in the season.”

While Indonesian labour laws prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from performing hazardous work, in practice, especially in small-scale farming in Indonesia’s under-developed eastern regions, the laws are often poorly enforced and understood.

After it is roasted, the tobacco grown by Beleke’s small-scale farmers is sold to middlemen, who transport it by the ton to one of several warehouses on the island. Mostly it is sold to a warehouse controlled by the Indonesian tobacco company Djarum.

One middleman, speaking anonymously, tells me that the company is unaware children are involved in production, but admits that no one asks questions about the issue.

Djarum declined to respond to questions about child labour.

The five big transnational tobacco companies say child labour was unacceptable and that they were working hard to stop it happening in their supply chain. They said they were encouraging farmers to grow other crops, but added that tobacco gave farms a better income.

No one interviewed in Beleke sees it as problematic that children work in the tobacco industry. One teenage boy, Restu, 13, illustrates just how lax attitudes around tobacco in the village are.

“All my teachers smoke,” he replies, when asked what he learns about smoking at school. “Even my headmaster smokes around us at school.”

With her repeated ill health but no definitive diagnosis, Eping’s parents aren’t entirely sure what to think. They say they have asked her to stop working during harvest.

“Sometimes I ask her to stop working, but she is so fast at it and I’m happy with that,” says her mother, Nurul Huda.

“And sometimes she just disappears,” she adds, with a shrug. “Every time she comes back carrying money.”

–Guardian News & Media Ltd

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