Over the past decade, Malawi has become one of the five largest tobacco producers in the world, largely due to low export tariffs, cheap labour and lack of regulations.
According to the UN, more than 98 percent of this low-cost leaf is exported to the rich nations of the developed world – with most of it ultimately destined for the factories of three of the world's biggest and most profitable cigarette manufacturers, Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco.
Consequently, Malawian tobacco is found in the blend of almost every best-selling cigarette brand available in Europe, Asia and the US. But few of the smokers who buy the end product know much about the conditions the tobacco they consume is produced under.
Malawi is one of the least developed nations in the world (ranking 153 out of 169 countries in the Human Development Index) with around half the population living below the poverty line of $1.25 a day and one of the highest numbers of child labourers in Africa – around 1.5 million.
With tobacco sales making up 70 percent of the country's income and a significant part of its industrial activity, it is sadly inevitable that many of these children (aged between five and 15) are being forced by economic necessity to work with their families in the tobacco fields, risking their health, safety, and future. There they are subjected to hazardous manual labour, physical strain, dangerous environments, and long hours; often charged with strenuous tasks such as clearing the land, building tobacco drying sheds, weeding and plucking raw tobacco.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and NGOs such as SOS Children, Plan International and others, when the children cut and bundle the tobacco leaves they are put at risk of absorbing toxic quantities of nicotine through their skin. Many suffer from a disease called green tobacco sickness, or nicotine poisoning. Symptoms include severe headaches, abdominal cramps, muscle weakness, breathing difficulties, diarrhoea and vomiting, high blood pressure and fluctuations in heart rate. Some are even given the task of applying pesticides with their bare hands – chemicals when handled incorrectly can cause serious neurological problems.
The consequences of child labour do not end there, it also affects their development and education - children working in the fields cannot be at school - and so their involvement in the industry inevitably perpetuates a cycle of exploitation, illiteracy, lack of opportunity and poverty that will one day force them back into the fields as adults.
The cigarette manufacturers all insist that they are firmly opposed to the use of children working in their supply chain and that in Malawi they fund projects aimed at getting children out of the fields and into education. They say they are also behind programmes that raise awareness about the health risks of handling raw tobacco.
But critics claim that these initiatives are little more than window dressing from a multi-billion dollar industry that ultimately benefits from the country's low production costs – and that if the companies were taking the matter seriously they should instead publicly declare and enforce a policy that they will not purchase any tobacco grown using child labour.
"They are masquerading around the issue," says Mathias Burton of Malawi's Economic and Legal Social Services Centre. "To ease their consciences, that's why they have this kind of stuff. To say they are fighting child labour. And when they sell their own products ... the profits that they make, what they give out in social responsibility to these organisations is nothing at all compared to what they make."
The Malawian government also carries a measure of responsibility – particularly as the country is signatory to several international conventions and treaties that outlaw and condemn child labour. President Joyce Banda has publicly pledged to intensify efforts to eradicate it by 2016.
At the International Labour Conference in Geneva in June 2013, she said: "I am personally concerned that child labour remains a huge problem in most developing countries, including Malawi. This is largely due to the high levels of poverty, among other things. It is evident that when families do not have decent employment that gives them an income, the children in such families will be prone to child labour."
As this film by Chloe Henry-Biabaud and Veronique Mauduy makes clear, so far there is little sign on the ground that things are changing. Detractors say that what legislation there is in Malawi is weak, full of loopholes and backed by wholly inadequate resources to enforce. Over the past two years only 49 tobacco farm owners have been prosecuted in Malawi for using child labour. Most received a $34 fine.
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