Malawi: Children working on tobacco farms remain out of school, say UN experts

Geneva, 21 December, 2022.- Large numbers of children working on tobacco farms in Malawi remain out of school, UN experts* warned today, urging the Government and tobacco companies operating in the country to improve labour conditions and ensure human rights are protected across the supply chain.

“Despite the abolition of the tenancy system, serious concerns persist in relation to risks of trafficking of children and forced labour,” the experts said. “Countries where tobacco companies are headquartered must strengthen action to prevent trafficking for purposes of child and forced labour.”

The experts said they had established a dialogue with some of the main companies involved in the tobacco industry in the country, including British American Tobacco, Imperial, Philip Morris International and Japan Tobacco Group after human rights abuses were reported within the sector.

“Cases reported affect over 7,000 adults and 3,000 children,” the experts said.

Tobacco farms in Malawi are usually located in remote areas where access to assistance and protection against labour rights abuses is limited, and action to prevent trafficking in persons is weak.

The remoteness of the farms also has a negative impact on children’s access to education and schools, according to the UN experts. In the aftermath of COVID-19, more than 400,000 children were reported not to have returned to school.

“A large number of children working on tobacco farms still remain out of school and have not returned to school post pandemic,” the experts said. The experts noted the efforts undertaken by Malawi and by some tobacco companies, including by supporting school feeding programmes and scholarships, but said that these are proving insufficient.

The experts pointed to discrimination against women in rural areas, leading to conclusion of contracts only with male heads of households, which increases risks of exploitation and abuse. “Women’s work remains invisible,” they said.

The experts called for strengthened monitoring, enforcement and business accountability on an urgent basis to prevent human rights abuses and ensure codes of conduct are effectively implemented in practice.

Workers’ organisations, civil society and trade unions play a critically important role in protecting the rights of workers and preventing trafficking for purposes of forced labour and child labour, the experts said. “Continued partnerships with and support for civil society and the national human rights commission, and ensuring civic space, will be essential.

“Improved transparency, reporting and human rights due diligence in the tobacco supply chain must be guaranteed,” they said.

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