Views and news on peace, justice and reconciliation in Africa




The tobacco-growing slaves

by Patrick Mawaya (550 words)

Tobacco is a key export crop in Malawi - but the conditions under which some of its growers work are distressing. Our correspondent brings the story of the appalling conditions that characterise the lives of the tenant growers.

The Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU) says that thousands of tobacco growers operating under the tenant system have been reduced to slaves by their landlords who decide every aspect of their lives. He wants urgent measures taken to rectify the situation.

Based on field visits to tobacco estates in the country early this year, the Congress says it observed degrading and inhuman conditions under which the tenants operate. Tobacco is the largest export crop for Malawi, followed by tea and sugar. Most tobacco estates are found in the central part of Malawi.

The tenants, says MCTU, are denied basic human rights including freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of expression. Harassment, exploitation and oppression is the order of the day. Landlords are virtual owners of their tenants. The MCTU says the so-called tenants can only be compared to serfs in a feudal system.

The Malawian constitution guarantees basic human rights to all citizens but MCTU says that the tenants have no collective voice before their landlords or the Tobacco Association of Malawi (TAMA) under which the landlords are organised.

Once the tenants are seen to be working together in order to achieve a common goal, they are threatened by their landlords. The tenants can therefore not negotiate for a minimum selling price for their crop. In addition, there is no mechanism to verify and monitor tobacco sales.

The power to negotiate and set prices lies in the hands of the landlords. The tenants, despite being producers, are mere price takers.

Health is another concern raised by the MCTU report. It says that the tenants do not have access to basic health facilities on the estates and often die from easily treatable ailments.

The tenants are also victims of malnutrition. Where they are provided with food, the frequency and the amount provided are at the discretion of the landlord. This is contrary to what the tenancy systems says that tenants have to be provided with food every month. Consequently, in order to avoid starvation, both the parents and their children have been forced to explore alternative means of obtaining food to supplement their rations.

There is massive child labour in these tobacco estates, notes the report. Children between the ages of five to 16 years are involved in weeding, desuckering and harvesting of the tobacco crop. These children often have to forego education in order to earn a living. This is despite the fact that Malawi offers free primary education to its children.

The tenants' situation has attracted the attention of the Catholic Church. However, the Catholic Diocese of Lilongwe's attempts to organise the tenants into an association were scuttled by the landlords and the government's unwillingness to offer support.

Indeed, the MCTU accuses the government of deliberately turning a blind eye to the plight of the tenants. The MCTU points out that legislation to protect tenants drafted in 1995 has been gathering dust in government offices to date.

The MCTU now says it will organise the tenants into a union to demand for fair prices for their produce. It also wants child labour abolished in tobacco estates.
The challenge in dealing with the tobacco "slaves" in Malawi lies in the fact that many of the landlords are big shots in the system.


Contents can be freely reproduced with acknowledgements. The by-line should read: author/AFRICANEWS.
Send a copy of the reproduced article to AFRICANEWS.

AFRICANEWS - Koinonia Media Centre, P.O. Box 8034, Nairobi, Kenya
tel/fax: 254.2.560385 - e-mail: KOINONIA@MAF.Org
AFRICANEWS on line is by Enrico Marcandalli

PeaceLink 1997