The use of exploitative child labour in tobacco growing in Malawi has been the subject of two television documentaries.
Channel 4’s ‘Unreported World: Child Labour In Malawi’, broadcast on 14 May 2010 in the UK, reported that although child labour is illegal in Malawi, young children are working in tobacco growing instead of going to school. Children worked long hours for little pay, suffered sickness and some were abused by their overseers. We felt the film maker’s decision to talk only about tobacco, though a very important crop in Malawi, meant the programme lacked context.
The BBC World News programme, broadcast internationally on Saturday 5 June 2010, was part of a five part series called ‘Working Lives – Human Traffic’ which portrayed the sad reality of exploitative child labour, human trafficking and child sex tourism in many different sectors in developing countries across the world.
The thirty minute long episode which featured tobacco farming in Malawi made it clear this was not a problem confined to the tobacco industry, the agricultural sector or Malawi and also covered the exploitation of children in Indian factories.
The programme showed one of many projects funded by the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation and explained the partnership we and the other tobacco companies have with them. The programme makers say: “This project aims to get child labourers out of the fields and into education. And it seems to be working”.
Transcript of Working Lives: Human Traffic (61 kb)
We firmly agree that children must never be exploited, exposed to danger or denied an education. We do not employ children in any of our operations worldwide and make it clear to all of our contracted farmers and suppliers that exploitative child labour will not be tolerated.
We are a founding member and supporter of the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation (ECLT) and this is helping to make a difference in Malawi. The foundation has been successfully supporting projects since 2002, spending almost US$7 million.
The Foundation is a multi stakeholder partnership, is advised by the International Labour Organisation, a UN agency, and is active in a number of countries. It is committed to helping to stop exploitation that deprives children of education and risks their health.
Read more about the ECLT Foundation
The tobacco industry in Malawi
We prefer to work as closely as possible with tobacco farmers - as we do with the 160,000 growers worldwide who are directly contracted to supply the majority of the leaf we buy. This relationship enables us to offer farmers advice and support not only relating to their crops and their land but on social issues such as exploitative child labour.
Regrettably, the way the tobacco industry is structured in Malawi means we are not allowed to work directly with the farmers. Malawi has more than 400,000 small tobacco farms, many intermediaries and a government auction system.
In some cases we are four or five steps removed from the growers themselves – with small-scale farmers selling tobacco to their landowners, who then sell it at auction to international dealers who then sell it on to us. So the price the farmer receives is often a fraction of the price received for it at auction.
In Malawi, where the type of tobacco grown is known as burley, we buy only 4 per cent of the country’s annual crop, via three international dealers.
The price farmers are paid for their tobacco
The graph below shows the average price of tobacco in other burley markets around the world where we have direct relationships with our growers.
It shows that Malawi by no means receives the lowest price for its tobacco but because of the system (with up to four or five middlemen involved and where we are not allowed direct contact with the growers) the farmers at the very end of the chain receive far less. In the other markets, the price we pay for the tobacco is more or less what the farmer takes home.