On tobacco fields, all work and no play

In some districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, young children from low-income families work in tobacco fields during their summer holidays

On tobacco fields, all work and no play


n the June heat, a group of children and women are seen sitting under a temporary shed in the Salar Muhammad Shali village of North Hashtnagar, sub-division Tangi. The area is known for the Kisan Tehreek which, for years, fought the landlords for agricultural land. With sweat trickling down their faces, they are busy skillfully looping and tying tobacco leaves. The children are seen quickly stringing the leaves on a wire. They have been told to tie at least 50 leaves per string. The task involves arranging the leaves, tying those with a wire on a wooden stick, and keeping it aside for counting. It is an arduous job, especially for children.

In what appears to be an assembly-line process, young men first pick tobacco leaves early in the morning from the fields and transport those to the tobacco furnace. There, some women workers and children are waiting to tie the leaves. A child working here earns Rs 2 per stick. At the end of a hard day, working under a scorching sun surrounded with the smell of fresh tobacco leaves, a child manages to earn Rs 200 to Rs 300.

The tobacco leaves are heated for a week. Children are involved in the entire process. During the three-month season, these children hardly make Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000. During summer vacations – from June to August – a majority of children from low-income families in Charsadda, Mardan, Nowshehra and Swabi work in tobacco fields and at the furnace. In doing so, they manage to earn exploitation wages. These children are also vulnerable to many diseases due to the use of pesticides on tobacco leaves.

For farmers, tobacco is a cash crop. It takes six months from sowing to harvest. The farmers like to grow tobacco because the payment is easy. For most farmers, the tobacco crop is more profitable than wheat, maize and vegetables. Manufacturing of tobacco products is a multi-billion agriculture-based industry where national and multinational tobacco companies have huge investments. According to the Pakistan Tobacco Board (PTB) open data source, 34,790 hectares of farm land was under various types of Virginia tobacco in 2021-22. 44 countries imported 22,390,370 kg of tobacco during 2021-22 from Pakistan. The trade volume stood at $77,337,191.

Eleven-year-old Abubakar says most of the child workers are his age. Working in a tobacco furnace is tough. He arranges and loops the leaves. He sports a rough haircut. His stained brown shirt is drenched in sweat. His elder brother is also binding tobacco leaves. After tying leaves the whole day, Abubakar makes Rs 100. He has already made plans for the money. “First, I will buy a lot of chips; then a school uniform,” he says. His father is a driver. Abubakar says his father always advises him to focus on his studies.

On tobacco fields, all work and no play

After tying leaves the whole day, Abubakar earns Rs 100. He has already made plans for the money. “First, I will buy a lot of chips, and then school uniform,” he says. His father is a driver.

Zaryab Khan, 10, is a student in the third grade. He is shy. He has acquired the skill of tying tobacco leaves efficiently. He has set himself a target: to earn Rs 5,000 in the ongoing tobacco season. He is an expert on how to heat up the furnace – when to throw wood to fire up the furnace and how to maintain the temperature. He knows the fireman’s routine: checking the thermometer and cooling down and heating up the furnace. It is a tricky and hazardous task. A single mistake can be lethal.

Besides the boys, there are girls and women. The girls and women are willing at an individual level to speak but are not allowed due to cultural restrictions.

The number of children engaged in child labour throughout the province is not known. Since 1996, child labour surveys have not been carried out. According to the 1996 data, at least a million children were engaged in child labour in the province.

Imran Takkar, a Peshawar-based child rights expert and activist, says the children are vulnerable to work-related diseases. “After a heavy spray of pesticides on tobacco crop, children working in the tobacco sector are exposed to chemical hazards,” he says.

Multinational tobacco companies are operating in the tobacco growing districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They have signed agreements with many farmers. “Multinational tobacco companies should cancel agreements with the growers who engage children in the tobacco production chain. They should stop purchasing tobacco from these farmers,” says Takkar.

Sparly Mohmand, a social activist from Charsadda, says child labour in tobacco sector is largely due to poverty and a general lack of opportunities and infrastructure for children. A majority of the children, he says, engage in such labour for pocket money. “The growers are not getting a lot of money. Tobacco production is an expensive process. To reduce their cost, the farmers offer children a very low wage,” he says.

Vigilance by district administrations and labour department is missing. The Child Protection and Welfare Commission, the civil society, and the Labour Directorate should take up the matter with multinational tobacco companies.

“It is also the parents’ responsibility to discourage child labour in the tobacco industry. Parents should also be willing to look after the well-being of their children and encourage them to study during summer vacations, not work in the fields” says Sparly.

The writer is a multimedia journalist. He tweets @daudpasaney

On tobacco fields, all work and no play