COMMENT Gift Gawanani Mauluka 15 June 2022
Malawi’s 2021 tobacco sales have generated a cumulative earning of over USD 197 million, representing a 13 per cent increase from the proceeds realised in the 2020 season. According to the Tobacco Commission in Malawi, the volume and revenue are expected to increase in the coming season as farmers’ production limits will not be restricted. The crop contributes significantly to the country’s economy, and it is usually produced for consumption outside Malawi. Surely this is good news for a country whose economy is predominantly agricultural based.
However, this seemingly good news is short-lived when one notes that children are increasingly enlisted to work on tobacco farms. Indeed, it has been reported that in general over 1.9 million children are involved in work that is detrimental to their health, moral and physical development, representing 38 per cent of economically active children. Furthermore, the agriculture sector ranks high on the list of industries where child labour cases are dominant. One wonders whether the celebrated proceeds are a result of the engagement of children in the industry.
In the districts where tobacco is mostly grown in Malawi, it is common to see children coming from a school with a bucket of water; or carrying a bundle of wood. Upon reaching home, they will either be asked to help the mother prepare a meal or assist the father to erect a shade for sorting and drying tobacco. Lubaale contends that such kind of light work not only helps the children acquire life skills that they will use in future but also contributes to the family income in one way or the other. It has to be noted that the engagement in these pieces of work depends on the labour demands available and age. However, the distinction between light work and child labour is so blurry that when left unsupervised and unregulated, light work starts skewing more towards work that surely impacts the welfare of the child.
Despite the heavy reliance on tobacco as one of the contributors to Malawi’s economy, most farmers lament that the prices are mostly not good to cater for farm inputs, labour and other expenses. To cut costs, and sometimes, under the disguise of teaching children important life skills, families involve their children in the tobacco value chain. Apart from being exposed to chemicals in the plant, suffering from green tobacco sickness and working in harsh conditions, the children often miss school, have limited time and opportunity to play with their friends and miss out on opportunities to live a dignified life. All these situations are contrary to the body of children’s rights as provided for in the Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as other domestic legislation.
While the line between light work and child labour might be blurry to realise, it is very certain that the just-ended tobacco season in Malawi generated more revenue than the previous year. It is also clear that important parts of Malawian tobacco production potentially run on the shoulders of children. It is further submitted that a majority of Malawi’s tobacco is exported for cigarette manufacturing and other tobacco-based products outside the country. It is therefore double-edged that as you smoke and expose your lungs to health hazards, a child involved in the production of that tobacco is exposed to child labour instances and probably will bear the brunt of that stub.
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