It is a poorly ventilated grass stalk hut that, for at least seven months a tenant farmer, Fabiano Jackison, calls a home at Engucwini in the northern part of Mzimba District.
The hut, the size of a kitchen for some households, accommodates his family of six. Clearly, the space is not enough for that number.
But Jackison believes it is a worthy sacrifice for as long as he makes ends meet for his impoverished family that wants to move up the poverty ladder with the help of a farming job.
“That is, however, never the case as we are suffering in vain,” he says.
Last year, when rains were erratic, he was paid K90 000 (about $131) for the eight tobacco bales he produced on a one-and-a-half acre field. This year, he expects to be paid K300 000 (about $439) for the 20 bales he has produced.
“I was very angry last year for labouring in vain. I went back to my village in Blantyre, but poverty forced me back to the same thing I did not want to do again,” adds Jackisoni.
Jackison is originally from Chigumula, Traditional Authority (T/A) Machinjiri in Blantyre. He migrated to Mzimba with his wife and four children, all below the age of 12, to start work as a tenant.
As a tenant, he is granted access to a parcel of land and agricultural inputs to produce tobacco which is exclusively sold to the estate owner at the end of the growing season.
For survival on the farm, Jackison is given 60 kilogrammes of maize to feed his family for a month. This is in addition to utensils and other foodstuffs such as salt and cooking oil.
“Most of the times we run out of food before the month ends and we have to depend on casual labour to source additional food. We usually work as a family to finish the job quickly so that we have time for the core job at the estate,” he says.
According to a 2015 study by the Centre for Social Concern (CfSC), tenants crucially provide the largest labour input in tobacco farms, accounting for 63 percent of the required labour force to produce tobacco and prepare it for sale.
However, the study—titled Tobacco Production and Tenancy Labour in Malawi—observes that tenancy labour in its current practice is characterised by very low returns and often exploitative arrangements that marginalise and degrade the workers.
The study was done in five districts of Kasungu, Lilongwe, Mchinji, Mzimba and Rumphi and was complemented with data collected from the district labour offices in Mulanje, Thyolo, Zomba and Machinga.
Among other key issues, the study established that 77 percent of the sampled tenants migrated from the Southern Region to the tobacco growing districts in the Central and Northern regions. The migration labour force consists in reality of whole families, although formally only the head of the family is employed.
The study says 51 percent of the tenants’ household members are women and girls of not more than 18 years.
“Although formally, only the head of the family is employed as a tenant, generally estate owners prefer married couples to single individuals as tenants,” adds the study.
Such systems, says the study, encourage child labour as 15 percent of children have been involved in casual labour and a total of 55 percent of children handled tobacco in readiness for curing and selling.
Despite the poor living and working conditions, a limited number of estate owners adhere to government officially-sanctioned prices and procedures. Only 11 percent of the estate owners followed the officially-sanctioned system.
“These are mostly the large-scale estates owners and 72 percent of the estate owners used average systems of purchasing the leaf from the tenants,” says the study.
Such inhuman conditions have given rise to complaints among tenants as the study found that a total of 91 percent of complaints in labour offices are those reported by tenants against the estate owners.
The chilling findings have moved CfSC to call for the abolition of the tenancy labour system in the country.
“In this day and age, current tenancy labour practices should be discouraged, if not abolished. Evidence has shown that the tenancy labour problems cannot simply be wished away, something needs to be done,” says CfSC director Father Jos Kuppens.
In early 1990, several actors observed the grey areas in the tenancy labour system and proposed the development of the Tenancy Labour Bill to address the basic rights of tobacco tenant workers.
There have been several versions of the bill which have gone through numerous revisions to have the 2010 Tenancy Labour Bill. The Joyce Banda regime expressed reservations in enacting it on the basis that it would legitimise forced labour.
Recently, Minister of Labour, Youth and Manpower Development Henry Mussa revealed that government has started a process to abolish the current tenancy labour system. It is instead proposing that tenants be put on a monthly salary agreement like employees in all other sectors.
He says the move seeks to protect the tenants from cases of alleged abuse associated with tenancy labour system in its current form.
Says Mussa: “We are saying that let us take out thangata [slavery] kind of thing which is being practised under the tenancy labour system right now. Before the next growing season, this revised bill should be law.”
Tobacco Tenants and Allied Workers Union of Malawi (TOAWUM) general secretary Raphael Sandramu says abolishing the system will not be enough if subsidiary laws are not put in place to protect the welfare of the tenants.
Sandramu says his organisation conducted a study in the tobacco growing districts where they established that 57 percent of the tenants are for the abolishment of the system to have monthly wages.
“The underlining factor, however, is that the tenants want that their welfare respected whether the system is abolished or remains in place,” he says.
Sandramu cautions on government to consult extensively on how best to frame the new law being suggested.
He says: “When I met the minister during the Labour Day celebrations, it was as if they already have a document to be discussed by Parliament in its sitting. Our plea is that they need to consult all the concerned parties first before passing the law.” n