BLANTYRE: Malawi is being forced to confront child and forced labor practices after the US restricted tobacco imports from the impoverished southeastern African nation over allegations workers including children were being exploited.
Although exports to the US make up only a small part of Malawi’s total, the US move could make it harder selling its tobacco elsewhere and has sparked anxiety among farmers who fear they will be forced to accept lower prices.
As tobacco, known locally as “green gold,” is Malawi’s top crop in terms of employment, foreign exchange earnings (60 percent) and tax revenue (25 percent), any trouble the sector runs into could quickly reverberate throughout the economy.
The US decision piles even more pressure on the tobacco sector, already confronted with global anti-tobacco campaigns.
The trouble began in late October. British law firm Leigh Day announced it was preparing a landmark class action case against British American Tobacco (BAT) on behalf of 2,000 Malawian farmers, including hundreds of children, for forced labor and poverty wages.
BAT, which says it “takes the issue of child labor extremely seriously,” has denied any wrongdoing and noted that it buys tobacco from Malawi via international dealers who are required adhere to a code of conduct that does not tolerate child and forced labor.
The US suspended imports of tobacco from Malawi, saying it had information that reasonably indicated it was being produced using forced labor and forced child labor.
According to a survey conducted in 2017 by the country’s statistics agency the use of child labor in Malawi is extensive. It found that 38 percent of the country’s children aged between 5 and 17 were working.
Although the survey did not provide specific information about the tobacco sector, it is widely acknowledged that child labor is a problem.
Betty Chinyamunyamu, who heads an association of smallholder farmers, said incidents of child labor occur despite efforts to eliminate the practice.