BY Sarah Boseley for The Guardian, UK
The leaf-buying companies, Alliance One, Universal—in Malawi known as Limbe Leaf—and the tobacco giant Japan Tobacco International (JTI), which does its own buying, grade the tobacco and decide the prices farmers are paid.
The leaf buying firms say they tell contract farmers not to use children and that stopping child labour is a priority as they ban under 18s from hazardous work.
In Malawi, the bales are transported by lorry to the auction halls in the capital, Lilongwe—at a cost paid by the farmers.
Most farmers are under contract to a leaf buyer. If they do not take the price they are offered, they could put their bales up for auction but they risk not selling at all.
Studies of the livelihoods of farmers in five low-income countries led by the economic and health policy research programme of the American Cancer Society in Atlanta, Georgia, have found that farmers at the end of a season just repay debts.
“Unequivocally for the vast preponderance of these leaseholders, the livelihood is very bad,” said Jeffrey Drope, the programme’s vice-president.
Drope said that families “admitted to pulling their kids out of school to work in handling tobacco directly without protection.”
The children were exposed to wet leaves—with the danger of contracting green tobacco sickness—as well as fertilisers and pesticide, he said.
The companies insist under-18s are only permitted to work with dry tobacco and that they have training policies to minimise risks with green tobacco.
“Handling dried tobacco is not considered as hazardous work,” JTI said.
BAT says “education is key” on safe practices with green tobacco; PMI’s prevention advice includes wearing long sleeves, gloves or rainwear.
A study in Malawi, headed by Donald Makoka of the Centre for Agricultural Research and Development in Lilongwe, found even the earnings of the contract and independent farmers who sublet to tenants were inadequate.
It noted: “In 2011, two of the largest European tobacco firms, British American Tobacco [BAT] and Imperial Tobacco, had profit margins of 34 percent and 39 percent, respectively.
“By implication, the high profit margins of the tobacco transnationals are, in part, a function of the impoverishing unpaid labour of tobacco farmers’ households.”
For the tenant farmers, whose cheap labour substantially contributes to the profits made by the companies, it’s a grinding life of hard labour seven days a week.
But it is only human to try to alleviate stress from time to time.
In the farm the Guardian visited in Kasungu, Isaac Mboba, 20, has made a guitar from an old vegetable oil canister and a piece of wood.
“My aim was to become a musician … I never saw a guitar but I thought I could create my own musical instrument. I saw pictures in the newspapers,” he says.
Malawian burley leaf is used as a filler in cigarettes around the world.
After auctioning, some of the leaf will be sent by sea from Beira to the United States, probably arriving in the Hampton Roads harbor in south-eastern Virginia.
Some of the leaf will go to the processing plants of the leaf-buying companies in North Carolina, the biggest tobacco processing region in the United States. Alliance One, JTI Leaf Services and all have major plants here and source from Malawi.
The tobacco is further processed to meet major manufacturing companies requirements.
The tobacco is sent by rail or road in the United States to the factories of the Big Tobacco companies, who have ordered it.
Some will be sent by ship from Mozambique to Europe, ending up in big manufacturers factories in Poland.
Shane MacGuill, head of tobacco research at Euromonitor, says 70 percent of cigarettes sold in the UK are now made there.
British American Tobacco and Philip Morris have substantial factories in Warsaw and Krakow, respectively.
Japan Tobacco, which makes the UK’s most popular brand, Sterling, as well as Mayfair and Benson and Hedges, send 75 percent of the products it manufactures in Poland to 60 countries around the world.
In the streets of Washington DC, Chicago and Los Angeles, London, Manchester and Glasgow, men and women inhale the smoke from Malawian tobacco.
How are the companies taking action? The tobacco industry in Malawi says it is opposed to exploitative child labour.
All the major companies contribute to the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco (ECLT) Foundation, set up in 2000, including Philip Morris International (PMI), BAT and JTI, as well as the leaf buyers Alliance One and Universal.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO), the only UN agency to have dealings and take funds for projects from the industry, is an adviser to the board.
Because it is independent, the companies say, the foundation can require governments to take action.
The ECLT Foundation says it has removed over 182 000 children from tobacco farms since 2011 in Kyrgyzstan, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda, and sent 27 000 to school and vocational training.
That figure amounts to less than 15 percent of the reported total number of child labourers.
The foundation also works in Indonesia and Guatemala.
The companies say they have made it clear to farmers that they must not use child labour.
PMI established a programme in 2011 “to improve labor practices and progressively eliminate child labour on all farms from which we purchase tobacco”.
There is monitoring and countrywide assessments of labour practices and “engagement with stakeholders” for improvement.
PMI funds the NGO Verité, which works towards “supply chain sustainability”, to evaluate the effectiveness of the programme, it says on its website.
BAT says: “We have always made it clear to all our suppliers of tobacco leaf and contracted farmers that exploitative child labour and other human rights abuses will not be tolerated.”
About one percent of its tobacco is bought from Malawi, all of it through leaf buyers such as Alliance One.
The relationships are governed by the industry’s Sustainable Tobacco Programme (STP), run by AB Sustain, which is part of the agricultural division of Associated British Foods.
“The … [programme] requires that all farmers are compliant with ILO child labour standards and that all farmers receive training on child labour prevention,” said BAT in a statement.
BAT says it commissioned a report from a development consultancy called DD International in 2012 which found tobacco farmers were not trapped in poverty but were increasing in prosperity.
The report looked at 40 or so case studies in three countries—Brazil, Bangladesh and Uganda.
BAT and JTI consider it acceptable for children of between 13 and 15 years of age to do light work on a family farm, provided it is light work permitted by local law.
JTI quotes the ILO, which says: “Work that does not affect their health and/or personal development, or interfere with their education, can generally be regarded as positive.”
JTI says all its suppliers are assessed via the Sustainable Tobacco Programme.
The company has a scheme called Arise (Achieving Reduction of Child Labour in Support of Education), which it says has taken more than 39 000 children out of child labor in Malawi, Brazil, Zambia and Tanzania since 2011.
Alliance One says the elimination of child labour is a “top priority”. It purchases most of its tobacco from contracted farmers whom it can direct to comply with policies including “a prohibition against employing anyone under the age of 18 for hazardous tasks”.
It seeks compliance through education and training and has more than 700 people in Malawi working on “agronomic and labour standards” with farmers. It also has a commitment to improving farmers’ incomes, it says.
Universal says it takes “the issue of child labor very seriously” and is undertaking “significant efforts around the world to mitigate the risk of child labour in our supply chain”.—Theguardian.com