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HRW: Indonesian Children Endangered Working in Tobacco Fields

A worker prepares tobacco leaves for drying in Deli Serdang district in Indonesia's North Sumatra province, May 24, 2010.

Dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting -- these are the symptoms thousands of Indonesian children are suffering after working long hours across the Southeast Asian country's vast tobacco plantations.

In a new report issued Wednesday, titled The Harvest is in My Blood: Hazardous Child Labor in Tobacco Farming in Indonesia, Human Rights Watch interviewed hundreds of child laborers, ranging in age between 8 and 17, working in some of the archipelago's 500,000 tobacco farms -- despite Indonesian law which forbids children under 18 years old from hazardous work, including work in environments with harmful chemical substances.

Health risks

The report revealed the children are handling raw tobacco with their bare hands, putting them at risk for acute nicotine poisoning commonly known as "green tobacco sickness," which occurs from absorbing nicotine directly through the skin. The children are at further risk from exposure to pesticides, which Human Rights Watch says has been associated with long-term, chronic health issues such as respiratory problems, cancer, depression and neurological damage.

Human Rights Watch researcher Margaret Wurth said the government must work harder to make sure families are informed of the risks.

"Children just should not be doing hazardous work where they're handling tobacco that could have affect their health. The problem here is that, you know, among the families we interviewed, very few of them have ever received any kind of meaningful education about what the hazards of the work could be for their kids, so they didn't know. That's why it's essential that companies and the government get this information to families so they can protect their kids," said Wurth.

Much of Indonesia's tobacco is purchased on the open market by multinational cigarette giants, including U.S.-based Philip Morris International. Human Rights Watch says it could not find any evidence that the companies are taking steps to prevent child labor in their supply chains.

A spokesman for Philip Morris says the company now buys the majority of its tobacco through direct contracts with Indonesian farmers, which allows it to directly address the issue of child labor.

In addition to the risks facing child laborers on tobacco plantations, Indonesia has also witnessed an alarming rise in the number of children smoking -- nearly 4 million children between the ages of 10 and 14 become smokers every year.