Human Rights

Places and Practices of Child Labour in Malawi

Desmond Mhango’s series on Child Labour in Malawi continues with this third article.

After elucidating the situational context of child labour, it becomes crucial to draw attention to the places and practices of child labour in Malawi.

Known Places of Child Labour

Children are employed in both formal and informal ways to fulfil unwritten contracts or temporary casual labour. Most of the contracts are unwritten, not negotiated, and fail to satisfy legal conditions. This is often due to the employer’s consciousness or unconsciously as they may be unaware of the laws governing employment, especially regarding the employment of children. According to the 2015 National Child Labor Study (NCLS), the majority of children aged 5-17 years old work in the agriculture sector (72%), domestic work (23%), and wholesale and retail industry (3%). In urban areas, children aged 5-17 years old are known to work in agriculture, forestry, and fishing industry; wholesale and retail trade (11%); domestic work (39%); and other industries (4%). In comparison, children in rural areas work in the agriculture, forestry, and fishing industry (75%); wholesale and retail trade (2%); domestic work; and other industries (21%).[1]

Data analysis should be broken down further into other areas of child work, whether formal or informal employment, and whether the work constitutes child labour or child work. It should explore more areas not recognized as employing children or child work. Rarely would domestic work performed at parental households be considered hazardous, regardless of the circumstances. Perceptions about child labour are largely anchored in beliefs, culture, and traditions, and legislation has followed these perceptions, except where limitations are anchored in international and regional human rights law.

Hidden and Emerging Practices of Child Labour

In recent years, Malawi has witnessed children working in informal mining as assigned by parents or guardians. In other cases, they are employed by invisible masters and mistresses. Children are working to pick up used empty bottles around towns. They work at waste disposal sites, and on the streets to earn a living. Some children are even trafficked across the national borders of Malawi to work. Their work remains unknown.

Selling Products at Public Markets:

Children are sent by their parents to sell crops, home-produced foods, and factory merchandise including plastic bags in the public market. Also, they sell farm products at marketplaces, carrying loads of goods for transportation. Also, they are asked or forced to work on household/family farmland for long hours and when peers are gone to school. 

Working in Waste Disposal Sites: 

In most cities and towns, town councils and city councils allocate pieces of land for refuse disposal in an open space. Refuse collection vehicles drop off these wastes from residential areas. Increasingly, children between 5 years and 17 years as well as some above 18 years old pick various items from the disposal sites and the vehicles arriving at disposal sites. As some of the pickings are sold, the children are motivated to work there all the time yet hazardous work. Their work takes up time they should have been in school. The terrible smell is not enough to deter them – neither is every bit of the food or non-food stuff from the bins and disposal sites being a massive risk to their health and lives. What should it be if not child labour, given they work there throughout the day in a risky environment for their physical, mental, and healthy living? Unless it falls short of the qualification of hazardous work, then call it child work. Otherwise, it is child labour. Unless this form of work falls short of the qualification of child protection concerns, then legalise it to formalise child work of this nature. If the government does not recognize it as a formal type of child labour, it should be banned to protect vulnerable individuals. 

Categorizing children as poor because they have to survive on waste due to poverty should be questioned. Until hitting 18 years of age, every child is supposed to at least be under the care of a responsible parent/s. In their absence, the state is obliged to provide cover. In the case of Malawi, the Social Support Policy (SSP) undergoing a review so that it may change to Social Protection Policy (SPP) is an ideal step to providing an effective safety net.

Children working on the Streets: 

The Malawi scenario leaves the case of children living and earning a living on the streets to child protection concerns thereby pushing the concern to the responsibility of the Ministry of Gender Community Development and Social Welfare (MoGCDSW) and not an inch to Ministry of Labour and Skills Development. However, that children work on the streets demands a hand from the Ministry responsible for labour. 

These children beg on the streets of mostly Lilongwe (the capital city), Blantyre, and Zomba. There exists invisible employment of children who are seen as escorting an adult person to begging when the children are used and abused to collect money from well-wishers. The children would thus get a share of the spoils at the end of the day but discretional to the adult recruiter. Some of the children are used or sent by their parents. The majority of them are women, the elderly and the blind. 

While the practice is illogical, illegal, and irresponsible on the part of parents and guardians, it demonstrates the highest order of negligence by the state failing to provide measures of equality and equity for all children. Implementing a non-discriminatory Social Support Policy Programme could have been subtle in preventing street child labour. Enforcing a Constitutional directive “to make primary education compulsory and free to all citizens of Malawi” (Constitution of the Republic of Malawi 1995, section 13f(ii)). An advocacy or legal test question should be asked to the state against assertions of section 13h, speaking to children as “to encourage and promote conditions conducive to the full development of healthy, productive and responsible members of society” (Constitution of the Republic of Malawi 1995). Therefore, the government must be held accountable for its failures to comply with its own Constitution in the wake of child labour in Malawi.

Child Work is Acceptable: 

Experience shows that children will engage in different forms of work to find their basic social needs for sustainable living. They may have to fend for themselves or in support of siblings or the entire family household. Growing up with a single parent in Malawi can be overwhelmingly challenging. Otherwise, discontent may lead to child delinquency. 

Some children will work temporarily (short-term) and others on somehow permanent (mid-term to long-term) jobs because they want to raise a certain amount of money for their education be it at primary, secondary, or tertiary levels in a country where education bursary may be available at secondary and tertiary education only. Still, its accessibility is not as easy.  

They will have to buy soap and clothes for themselves or their families in a household headed by a child, an old grandparent, or a single mother. It appears fine for child work which is child labour, even if it is hazardous because the child must survive or provide for the rest anyway. Others will imagine that the practice is good for preparing the child to grow up into a productive citizen. The contrary is very true, though for a child ought to be looked after in growing up and must be guided on acceptable child tasks that meet the test of work which is “not hazardous”.

Parents and government alike must be held accountable for child care as per the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children (UN CRC), and the African Union’s African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (AU ACERWC).

Children Trafficked for Labour: 

Malawian children are trafficked within the country and across the borders to other countries for purposes of labour sources. Those trafficked internally will work in brick making, sand hauling, transportation, cattle herding, fishing industries, construction industries, farming, and farm produce processing mostly for tobacco, in household chores, in shops as salespersons, cleaners, selling clothes, selling household bakings, and eggs by roaming on the streets of urban areas. Others are recruited to work as commercial sex workers, household servants, nannies, garden boys, washing clothes or household cleaning up, and others. 

An article on the push factors for child labor in Malawi will follow on the upcoming Friday.

[1] NCLS 2015 Report Ministry of Labour, and UNICEF Malawi.


  • Desmond Mhango

    Desmond Nyuma Mhango is the Executive Director of the Malawian NGO Centre for Youth and Children’s Affairs (CEYCA). He has been working on child protection and children's rights for the past twenty-six years. Child Labour is one of the child protection concerns he has been working on over the years at the grassroots and at policy levels.

By Desmond Mhango

Desmond Nyuma Mhango is the Executive Director of the Malawian NGO Centre for Youth and Children’s Affairs (CEYCA). He has been working on child protection and children's rights for the past twenty-six years. Child Labour is one of the child protection concerns he has been working on over the years at the grassroots and at policy levels.

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