It is around 4am at a tea estate in Thyolo (name withheld). All is quiet as the business of the day is yet to begin.
However, just a few kilometres away, one labourer we will identify as Mlindima from Mulenga Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Mphuka in Thyolo is already at his workplace. He says his work ranges from tea plucking, fertiliser and chemical application, tea sorting, weeding and pruning. On this day, he is plucking tea.
Clad in worn-out shorts and shirt, a cap and no shoes, Mlindima looks very busy. Using his bare hands, he plucks and plucks, and when the hands are full, he throws the leaves into a wicker basket tied to his back with a rope. When it is full, he takes them to a shed where they are later weighed, packed and taken to the factory.
Looking at his face, you might think he is enjoying the job, but there is untold pain inside him. For starters, he wishes he could look decent while at work, but he cannot.
“The tea branches tear our clothes. To avoid that, I put on rags. We are not given work suits except raincoats during the rainy season,” explains Mlindima.
He says their wages depend on their ability to meet the target, which is 44 kilogrammes (kg) per day. Additional weight is paid separately.
The wage was K551 (about $0.8) per day until late last year when Tea Association of Malawi (Taml) revised it upwards to a minimum of K850 (about $1.2).
Mlindima says although it was increased, it is peanuts, considering the high cost of living. He now takes home K20 400 (about $30) per month.
Although it is a prerequisite for employees to use protective gear during work, it is a different story at this estate. Mlindima cannot remember the last time he used a Selective Tea Harvester (STH), a tool for plucking tea.
He reveals that when the company stocks new STHs, it is the long serving employees that benefit.
A supervisor (name withheld) admits the situation, but says the reason is that most labourers do not return the machines when they quit the job. He says most of their workers are smallholder tea growers and they want the STH for their farms.
Similarly, very few labourers are provided with raincoats and gumboots as recommended by both the Labour Act and Taml.
Provisions under the occupational, safety, health and welfare in the Labour Act (Section 51(7), says where the use of hazardous chemicals is likely to penetrate the skin and cause rash, the type of clothing worn shall be such as to enable rapid removal of any chemical from skin contact.
Tea, coffee and macadamia crops survive on chemicals. A report by the Malawi Tea Research Project published by the Malawi Centre for Advice Research and Education (Mcare) says chemicals are used to improve yield, fight pests and diseases and retain soil nutrients, among others. Apart from chemicals, workers are exposed to machines and environment with skin cutting objects.
While the estate is saving resources by ensuring it does not lose its tools to temporary employees, the practice poses health risks to its staff.
Mlindima’s skin and palms are a testimony. The palms are hard and rough, especially on the edges and he claims this is a result of plucking tea with bare hands for years.
“In 2012, I struggled with a skin rash which doctors said was caused by highly concentrated chemicals,” he claims.
His feet too, wear some signs of hardships-stepping on tree stumps and rough surface for years.
Nonetheless, the situation at this estate is not unique. Other tea estates, save for those under the Fair Trade International (FTI) initiative, have similar practices.
FTI is an international grouping that promotes fair trade between agricultural producers and consumers. It works with estates that meet its conditions, which basically addresses the rights and safety of employees and fair businesses. In return, FTI provides for surrounding communities. Currently, only Satemwa, Lujeri and Eastern Produce Malawi are members.
Driving along the Limbe-Muloza Road from Bvumbwe in Thyolo, one sees labourers working without protective gear.
Mlindima is married with three children-two boys and a girl, but lives in a bed sitter. It is part of a 20-roomed dormitory, one for each household. They use sacks as a partition and children sleep on one mat.
During our visit, we found workers taking hot beverage. It is served in cups with sugar already added, but no snacks are provided. They meet the snacks costs. Because there is always little sugar, some entrepreneurs find business in selling sugar in sachets and snacks. At mid day, the employees are given nsima and pigeon peas.
One employee, whom we will call Naphiri, says it is too monotonous: “We practically eat pigeon peas for six days!”
Benson Jameson, a retired nutritionist, describes the diet as unhealthy.
“If your meals are too repetitive, your body might hit a snag,” he says.
Despite several efforts, officials at the estate refused to grant us an interview. The Parliamentary Committee has reportedly visited the estate three times and ordered it to improve houses for staff, protective clothing for employees and wages, but nothing has changed.
Meanwhile, the thousands of unemployed Malawians living around the estates can only envy the few that manage to get a labourer’s job while those in employment would rather ignore the poor working environment than lose their source of livelihood. n