HARARE, -- International rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) has raised the red flag on conditions in the production of tobacco in Zimbabwe which it urged the government and companies involved to take urgent steps to redress.

Zimbabwe, like other top tobacco producers in the world, was found to be in the wrong when it comes to issues around child labour, exploitation of workers and failure to provide a safe working environment which results mainly in poisoning of employees.

Tobacco is Zimbabwe's top export crop, earning the country more than 500 million US dollars every year.

In its report launched here Thursday titled, A bitter harvest, HRW said it had carried out two years of research and interviews with more than 125 people directly involved in tobacco production in Zimbabwe, and established that cases of child labour were rife in the industry.

Many children under 18 years work in hazardous conditions on tobacco farms in Zimbabwe, often performing tasks that threaten their health and safety or interfere with their education, HRW said.

Children working on tobacco farms in Zimbabwe are exposed to nicotine and toxic pesticides.

Workers, including children, were exposed to health and safety risks because of lack of information, training and equipment to protect themselves and were being exposed as a result when they handled the crop as well as pesticides.

Hired workers on some large-scale tobacco farms said they were pushed to work excessive hours without overtime compensation, denied their wages, and forced to go weeks or months without pay, HRW said.

Our research suggests companies are generally not doing enough to prevent and address human rights abuses throughout the supply chain.

The report said most tobacco farm workers had experienced symptoms consistent with nicotine poisoning while working, including nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, and dizziness.

With Zimbabwe's new government, led by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, aiming to push the country's economic growth through agriculture, HRW said it was imperative that the authorities addressed abuses faced by the small-scale farmers and hired workers sustaining the tobacco industry.

It was critical that government dispatches labour inspectors to visit farms to inspect working conditions to address some of the difficulties faced by workers, it said.

The Zimbabwean government stated that it has 120 labour inspectors, and carried out 2,500 labour inspections in all sectors between 2015 and early 2018. It reported that no record of any violations were

received, though it reported that a 2014 labour force survey found the prevalence of child labour across sectors is around 4.6 per cent, HRW said.

Zimbabwe was not alone in this predicament, HRW said, adding other top tobacco producing countries such as Kazakhstan, the United States, and Indonesia also faced similar challenges.

In its top recommendations, HRW called on the government and Parliament to revise the list of hazardous occupations for children set out in the 2001 amendment to the Children's Act, or enact a new law or regulation, to explicitly prohibit children from working in direct contact with tobacco in any form.

It also called for investigations and monitoring of child labour and human rights violations on tobacco farms, including small-scale farms and the development and implementation of an extensive public education

and training programme to promote awareness of the health risks of work in tobacco farming.

Companies involved in tobacco were called on to adopt a global human rights policy prohibiting the use of child labour anywhere in the supply chain as well as conduct regular and rigorous monitoring in the supply

chain for child labour and other human rights risks, and engage entities with expertise in human rights and child labour to conduct regular third-party monitoring in the supply chain.