Rampant Child Labour in Malawi’s Tobacco Fields

By Juthi Saha

In Malawi, nearly one and a half million children are in child labour. Human rights lawyers are set to bring a landmark case against British American Tobacco on behalf of hundreds of child labourers and their parents.

BAT said in a statement that it took the issue of child labour very seriously and “strongly agrees that children must never be exploited, exposed to danger or denied an education”.

Simon Cleverly, Group Head of Corporate Affairs at British American Tobacco, said “we do not condone or employ child labour, and seek to ensure that the welfare, health, and safety of children are paramount at all times”.

He said BAT made it clear to contract farmers and suppliers that exploitative child labour and forced and bonded labour would not be tolerated.

Lawyers argue that while farming families toil over backbreaking work in desperate poverty, BAT is reaping the rewards.

One Farmer named Junio, 36, explained he doesn’t want his children to work, but that they cannot manage without them. He, his wife and his three children (ages 14, 11 and 9) work 3 acres of land. Only the youngest, aged 7 escapes for now.

Many of these tenant farming families are from Phalombe, the poorest region in the south, and travel north hoping to earn a lump sum that will allow them to set themselves up back home.

“I intend to go back if I can get enough money and build a good house and sell second-hand clothes,” says Junio. “And not suffer in life.” This is their third year.

“We are failing to support our children in terms of school because of money,” he says.

The case, potentially one of the biggest that human rights lawyers have ever had, could transform the lives of children in poor countries who are forced to work to survive – not only in tobacco but also in other industries such as the garment trade.

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