Tobacco Association of Malawi (Tama) has expressed surprise with the United States of America (USA) Government’s decision to ‘ban’ Malawi tobacco’s entry into that country for purportedly using child labour.
Tama, the country’s oldest and biggest tobacco growers’ body with a membership of about 50 000 farmers, said contrary to allegations of forced labour and child labour practices as levelled against Malawi by the USA, the country has in recent years invested in the fight against child labour practices.
The reaction follows a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Withhold Release Order (WRO) on tobacco from Malawi two weeks ago, allowing it to detain imported goods believed to have been produced with forced labour, according to a CNN report.
Following the WRO, shipments arriving in USA will be detained at the port of entry before being subjected to heavy scrutiny by authorities and ensure that importers prove to the US authorities that the tobacco is not produced with child labour which is prohibited under US law.
But during a news conference in Lilongwe yesterday, Tama chief executive officer Felix Thole said the association is surprised with the decision by the US, arguing that Malawi has relentlessly fought the alleged child labour in tobacco farming, in recent times.
He said: “More money has been spent by the industry stakeholders, including tobacco buying companies. Malawi has done a lot in fighting child labour and it was surprising to ourselves.”
While repeatedly denying it was not tobacco ‘ban’ or suspension as portrayed in the media, Thole said they learnt about the development during the 34th Assembly convened by the International Growers Association (ITGA) held between November 3 and 5 2019 in Santiago, the Dominican Republic. Tama was among a 10-member Malawi delegation at the conference.
He said after getting wind of the development, Tama president Abiel Kapichira Banda was tasked to consult Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Principal Secretary Grey Nyandule-Phiri before raising the issue at ITGA level.
Thole said even the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco-Growing (ECLT), a global leader in fighting child labour, has been vocal and active in fighting the vice in Malawi. He said the institution in liaison with Lisbon-based ITGA will soon issue a statement on strides Malawi has made towards curbing child labour, especially in tobacco farming.
During the news conference, Banda, who has just assumed the presidency of ITGA, said the issue will be collectively handled by all stakeholders in the tobacco industry.
Meanwhile, a meeting has been called for tomorrow by the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development on the tobacco import ban by the US and, according to Tama, all key stakeholders within the tobacco industry will be in attendance, including officials from five ministries and representatives of the US Embassy in Lilongwe.
Tobacco industry sources yesterday corroborated that the decision by the US Government puts at stake about eight million kilogramme (kg) of Malawi tobacco destined for the US every year and valued at $29 million (about K22 billion) based on the past six-year average.
In 2017, Malawi earned an estimated $532 million (about K404 billion) from tobacco and manufactured tobacco substitutes, according to the statistics by the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism.
When called yesterday, Nyandule-Phiri declined to comment, saying: “Wait until I come back to you and it will not be today.”
Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Kondwani Nankhumwa is on record as having told our sister newspaper Weekend Nation last week that he learnt about the sad development through social media.
He said: “I immediately contacted my Principal Secretary to arrange for a meeting with Tobacco Commission. We want to understand what led to this.”
While Tama and other stakeholders are dismissing the issue of child labour, a 2017 National Child Labour Survey undertaken by National Statistical Office showed that 38 percent of the country’s children between the ages of five and 17 are engaged in child labour.
To curb child labour in tobacco production, several tobacco buying firms, including JTI Leaf Malawi and Alliance One have rolled out initiatives aimed at ending the practice. The initiatives are part of the Integrated Production System (IPS) approved in 2012.
During the commemoration of Child Labour Day in July this year, Malawi Congress of Trade Unions and a non-governmental organisation Winrock International warned that Malawi risked missing the 2025 target to reduce child labour largely due to failure to implement measures to end the vice.
The decision by the US also comes at a time some organisations in the United Kingdom have taken British American Tobacco (BAT) to court to claim compensation on behalf of Malawian children allegedly forcibly used as labour in tobacco estates.
Tobacco is touted as a major foreign exchange earner for Malawi, contributing about 60 percent and accounting for at least 25 percent of tax revenue.