Despite abolishing a tenancy system last year that was blamed for fueling child labor, Malawi has 3,000 children working in its tobacco industry, according to a United Nations report.
On Wednesday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement expressing concern about the findings of the report.
Siobhán Mullally, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on trafficking in persons and an expert who contributed to the report, told VOA Thursday that the U.N.’s concerns come after the U.N. communicated with Malawi government and tobacco companies operating in Malawi.
“Over two months ago, we sent formal communications to the companies and to the government of Malawi,” said Mullally. “Those published are their responses. So we will continue working with them to raise these concerns.”
Last year, Malawi enacted laws against the tenancy system, an often exploitative agrarian labor practice also known as sharecropping, which was long blamed for fueling child labor in the tobacco industry.
The U.N. expert report says human rights abuses reported within the sector affected more than 3,000 children and 7,000 adults.
It also says in the aftermath of COVID-19, more than 400,000 children were reported not to have returned to school.
“This is really why we want to see much more urgent action to monitor the situation and prevent such occurrences,” said Mullally. “And risks of exploitation need to be better addressed. The tobacco companies and government need to take greater efforts to prevent the recruitment and exploitation of children on tobacco farms to ensure their protection.”
Tobacco is Malawi’s dominant cash crop, accounting for about 13 percent of its gross domestic product and 60 percent of the country’s exchange earnings.
However, in 2019, the U.S. government suspended Malawi tobacco imports after allegations of child labor.
This forced Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera to assent to legislation in 2021 amending the Employment Act, establishing provisions that abolish the tenancy system.
The Malawi government is currently running programs aimed to end child labor, including the National Social Cash Transfer Program, which supports low-income families in high-risk districts so children can stay in school.
However, the U.N. has reported that efforts undertaken by Malawi and some tobacco companies, including by supporting school feeding programs and scholarships, are proving insufficient to address the problem.
“The government can ensure that there is access for labor inspectors for civil society and ensure that all steps have been taken by those companies that have permission to operate,” said Mullally. “If it is [a] trafficking issue, it also requires cooperation with law enforcements.”
Big names in tobacco
The U.N. researchers said they already discussed the matter with some of the companies involved in the tobacco industry in Malawi, including British American Tobacco, Imperial, Philip Morris International, and Japan Tobacco Group.
Simon Evans, the group media relations manager for Imperial Brands PLC tobacco company, told VOA via email Thursday that the company takes the matters raised in U.N. report seriously and that the company does not condone exploitative practices in its supply chains, as outlined in the Code of Conduct on its corporate website.
As a long-standing member of the Eliminating Child Labor in Tobacco Growing Foundation, Evans said the company is working to prevent exploitation through multi-stakeholder initiatives.
These include the industry-wide Sustainable Tobacco Program in which all tobacco source suppliers are expected to participate to address child labor.
Malawi’s Minister of Labor Vera Kamtukule told VOA that the Malawi government is running a program that enrolls children withdrawn from child labor into schools as well as vocational training institutions.
“The total number that was withdrawn this year is 528, compared to 173 last year,” said Kamtukule. “The total number that have put into vocation is 196, compared to three last year. Those they have sent back to school this year alone, is 65 compared to 54 last year.”
The Malawi government, said Kamtukule, is working to eliminate child labor by 2025.
“What I can tell you is that the fight against child labor is really ongoing,” said Kamtukule. “It is not something that is ad hoc.”