Sexual abuse, exploitation rampant in tobacco farms

What you need to know:

  • In the remote tobacco farming hub of Ushetu District Council, Shinyanga region, the promise of economic prosperity for farmers conceals a dark secret: the exploitation of trafficked victims

Ushetu. In the remote tobacco farming hub of Ushetu District Council, Shinyanga region, the promise of economic prosperity for farmers conceals a dark secret: the exploitation of trafficked victims.

Gideon, a 15-year-old from Burundi, and 15 of his peers were lured to Tanzanian tobacco fields with the promise of fair wages. However, what awaited them was a harsh reality far removed from the envisioned prosperity.

"We were promised by the ‘agent’ that we would be paid between Sh150,000 and Sh250,000 per season. It was easy to accept given the difficult life that we endured back home," recounts Gideon.

The allure of employment on tobacco farms often serves as a beacon of hope for impoverished individuals, making them susceptible to traffickers preying on their dreams of escaping poverty.

“I found myself toiling in gruelling conditions, facing endless hours of labour under the blazing sun without proper protective gear,” the teenager narrates, adding that his dream of a better life has transformed into a living nightmare.

A two-month investigation by The Citizen exposes a troubling trend where vulnerable individuals, predominantly from Burundi, Rwanda, and the DR Congo, find themselves ensnared in exploitative labour conditions.

Some work tirelessly throughout the year without receiving payment, compelling them to escape and face life on the streets, often becoming undocumented Tanzanian citizens in the process.

“I’m, however, looking for any chances to escape to towns where I can hustle freely to make ends meet. I have no plan of going back home as of now,” Gideon says.

The remote and isolated nature of tobacco farms, coupled with the lack of oversight, contributes to the invisibility of this exploitation, according to the locals.

Victims, unable to seek help or the authorities' intervention, remain silent due to fear of revenge from their oppressors.

The exploitation begins with the arrival of vehicles dropping off labourers at the start of the tobacco planting season, a local government leader reveals.

"The strange thing is that even teenagers are brought into the fields; 10 to 12 years old, mostly not Tanzanians, they end up becoming Tanzanians,” he says.

“Even when we want to follow up, we are afraid because the perpetrators of this menace are capable of doing any harm to us."

The labourers, he says, regardless of age, are assigned tasks as manual workers, reflecting the harsh conditions prevailing on the farms.

The exploitation extends beyond labour, as revealed by a victim named Pendo, who escaped after enduring brutal acts for six months, including forced sexual acts.

She says one day, while she was in the field, she saw a car coming that had brought pesticide, so she decided to approach it, and fortunately, she was welcomed and listened to.

"Inside the car was this (directing her finger to her current boss) sister of mine, who I currently live with... The situation there (in tobacco farms) is so bad, people are treated gravely," she explains.

The host of this girl admits to saving her in November last year after listening to the situations she was going through. "I took her and promised to help her return home safely."

"We know these places because we have been distributing pesticides. Many young girls and boys work on these farms despite the government not allowing it," she explains. "Sometimes farm owners don't know the suffering that these children go through, especially girls."

Lack of monitoring within the protected fields makes it challenging for authorities to address the situation, especially after victims join the entire community as natives.

“We are often isolated, making it challenging for authorities to intervene and for us to seek help,” narrates another victim. “Fear of revenge further silences us who might contemplate speaking out against our oppressors.”

How they are smuggled

According to a source at the border between Tanzania and Burundi, conductors and bus drivers are often used to transport the group to the epicentre of the menace—Kahama.

"Before tobacco planting season starts, agents from Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo prepare young people for that opportunity. When the time comes, bus drivers and other vehicles transport them," he explains.

"Some do not cross the borders but are already on the Tanzanian side, where they have become Tanzanians without a permit, ending up in the country's big cities.

The Immigration Department's supposed regulation through an 'immigrant pass' reveals a significant loophole allowing underage individuals to fall through the cracks.

Despite legal documentation, some farm owners collaborate with unscrupulous immigration officials or sneak underage workers into tobacco fields.

An official from Ushetu tells The Citizen that they have been struggling with the situation every year, noting that even though the documentation was legal, there were people (farm owners) who instead collaborated with unscrupulous immigration officials or simply sneaked underage into tobacco fields.

One of the owners of a tobacco farm in Ushetu district admitted the existence of such a business, claiming that despite clear directives from the law, there were people who used the loophole to smuggle children for their own interests.

"We get permission from the immigration department to legally bring in workers, but we find out later that some agents are used by people with evil intentions to bring in children for their own purposes," he says.

"Personally, if I find them in the field, I drive them away, and I don't have time to follow up. If we drive them away, they find themselves now falling into the hands of bad people in society," he claims.

Another farmer claimed that some young people were being smuggled into fields by local government officials.

"That's done by local government leaders. Personally, I don't allow children to work on my farms," he says.

But the investigation exposes a network responsible for luring children into the tobacco fields.

An agent involved defends his actions, stating, "I'm only doing my job. I don't normally ask people's age when I'm sent to pick them up at the borders as labourers; instead, we focus on their readiness to work."

He said that although some labourers were given permits by authorities, there were those who entered with special instructions and ended up on the streets but later went to the fields as job seekers.

Kahama District Council's immigration officer, Mr Salum Rashid, confirmed to this newspaper the existence of a procedure to allow farm workers to enter the country by obtaining an immigrant pass.

"There is a procedure where anyone can request a permit to import labourers from abroad for a specific period of time without any problems," he said.

However, he affirmed, "We do not allow underage persons to enter the fields because it is against human and children's rights."

A retired Commissioner of Police, whose name is withheld, used a Kiswahili expression that says, "Katika msafara wa mamba, na kenge wamo."

Despite expressions of anger from some farm owners, there is acknowledgement that young people are being smuggled into fields by local government officials.

“Laws and procedures are being put in place, but there are still people, even within the law enforcement units, who are doing tricks; that's why you also find children in the tobacco fields," he says.

Psychologists and medical experts

Medical experts, including Dr Thomas Johnson, highlight the severe health risks faced by underage workers due to physical labour and exposure to harmful substances.

"We cannot expose children to hard and suffering work like tobacco just because they are foreigners; health has no race or nationality," he says while explaining that they have been dealing with many patients with lung issues, including the underage in Kahama, because of that.

“The physical toll of labour, coupled with exposure to harmful substances, poses significant health risks to these children. The long-term consequences of such exploitation can scar them for life, affecting their physical and mental well-being,” he added.

Local authorities express concern over the situation, emphasising the need for education among farm managers and owners.

"If these managers are given proper education, including the farm owners, this problem will end," remarks a local government official involved in the investigation.

Supported by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation