KASUNGA, Malawi– During harvesting season in Malawi, the vibrant green tobacco fields are peppered with thousands of people tending to the crops. Some of those people can even count the years of their lives on one hand.
Among them is Olofala, a five-year old harvester who works alongside his parents in rural Kasungu, one of Malawi’s key tobacco growing districts. He works every day, usually for 12 hours. Posed with the question of whether he will attend school the following year, young Olofala can only shrug.
His 12 year-old sister Ethel already knows where school falls in terms of importance: work always comes first, school second. She only attends class occasionally, either because she is working the fields or because she is too sick to work. Describing her physical afflictions she says, “I cough. I have chest pains and headaches. Sometimes it feels like you don’t have enough breath.”
An estimated 80,000 child workers tend to tobacco in Malawi and many of them have similar health complaints. They suffer from a disease known as ‘green tobacco sickness,’ which is a form of nicotine poisoning.
According to the World Health Organization, the symptoms are severe: terrible headaches, abdominal cramps, muscle weakness, difficulty breathing, diarrhea, vomiting, high blood pressure and fluctuations in heart rate.
What causes such crippling symptoms? Given that the handling of the tobacco leaves is generally done without the appropriate protective clothing, harvest workers absorb up to 54 milligrams of dissolved nicotine daily through their skin.
The amount is equivalent to the smoking of 50 cigarettes.
In return, what do these child workers get for their backbreaking efforts that often cost them their health? For the most part, nothing. Those who “help” their parents usually receive no compensation for their labors. The children who are compensated the equivalent of 25 cents for endless hours of tiring work are the “lucky” ones.
At the heart of this devastating situation is Malawi’s poor economic landscape. In fact, Malawi remains one of the least developed countries in the world. In the 2010 Human Development Index, the nation was ranked 153 out of the 169 countries surveyed. As it is, nearly 40% of Malawians live below the poverty line of $1.25 a day.
Such dire economic conditions often force parents to involve children in economic activities in order to help feed the family. Often this means work in the tobacco fields, especially as Malawi has become one of the top tobacco producers in the world.
Up until the 1980s, much of the world’s tobacco was grown in the United States. Now, by contrast, nearly 85% of it is produced in the global south, where child labor is a significant problem. According to Marty Otanez, researcher at the University of California’s tobacco control research and education center, “in any developing country where tobacco is grown, you find child labor starting at the age of five.”
Malawi, with the the highest number of child laborers in all of Africa, is one of the worst offenders.
As a signatory to UN and International Labor Organization child labor conventions with its own legislative framework outlawing the employment of children under the age of 14, why does the Malawian government not do more to protect its youth?
The answer, again, has to do with economics.
Malawi is heavily dependent on its agricultural sector. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, tobacco alone is responsible for 70% of its total export earnings. Thus, “some estates follow anti-child labour regulations, but others purposefully flaunt the law in the interest of higher profits,” says Plan Malawi advisor MacDonald Mumba.
According to him, in the last two years only 49 farm owners have faced prosecution on child labor charges. The most common punishment? A 34 dollar fine.
The legal framework in place is also fairly weak. UNICEF child protection officer Tomoko Horii believes that pledges to combat child labor represent nothing more than ceremonial actions in response to international pressure: “The budget allocation is minimal. So far all projects have to be financed by international NGOs.”
Despite claims that the giant tobacco companies like BAT, Philip Morris, China National Tobacco Company, Imperial Tobacco and Japan Tobacco do not “employ children in any of our operations worldwide,” tobacco growing is enormously lucrative for the industry. Collectively, these companies earned 300 billion in 2008 alone, an amount greater than the total GDP of all but 40 countries worldwide.
Part of what accounts for such monstrous profits is unpaid child labor, which amounts to 1.2 billion in profits annually.
According to Stanton Glantz, another researcher at the University of California’s tobacco control research and education center, replacing child labor with adults paid the minimum wage would drive a 10 million dollar increase in production costs in Malawi alone.
According to Glantz, the answer is a simple one: “If major tobacco companies were genuinely committed to improving the socio-economic conditions of child workers, they should rectify harmful business practices by enforcing a policy that they will not purchase any tobacco grown using child labor.”
In the absence of movement toward such practices, children like Olofala will continue to work brutal 12-hour days to the detriment of their health and their futures. Their inability to attend school or build other important skills work to perpetuate the cycle of exploitation, illiteracy and poverty, making it entirely unlikely they will ever see life outside of a tobacco field.
– Kelley Calkins