Improving conditions in Malawi agricultural sector: Tackling child labour and related issues

Four years ago, the Ministry of Labour published the National Plan of Action on Child Labour (NPACL), the result of a highly participatory process spanning more than two and half years.

Back then we were relying largely on anecdotal evidence about the implementation of interventions to combat child labour, but even so we could see results. The Plan that was developed by government, business, social partners, civil society and other stakeholders set out to improve on those results, and to translate the policy pronouncements into concrete and measurable programmes.

We have hard evidence of the success of the plan so far. For example, the recently published Agricultural Labour Practices Progress Report 2013 evaluates the conditions on more than 490,000 arms located in more than 30 countries, including Malawi. The Tobacco Control Commission therefore welcomes the appointment of Honourable Dr. Allan Chiyembekeza as Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development. We are confident that the Honourable Minister will throw his weight into ensuring that the NPACL continues to address child labour on tobacco farms.

Munthali: TCC boss
Munthali: TCC boss

The co-operation of stakeholders in the application of the NPACL has proved that much can be achieved when a problem is approached collectively with a singular vision.

The Ministry of Labour, working with partners of the Child Labour Elimination Actions for Real Change (CLEAR), which included, Save the Children (SC), Total Land Care (TLC), Creative Centre for Community Mobilization (CRECCOM) and the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco-growing countries (ELCT) Foundation, to mention a few, have conducted considerable research into best practices for the elimination of child labour and other negative related issues.

There are also companies that are working in conjunction with our government, local communities and non-government organizations (NGOs) – including the leading global NGO in the area of supply chain social responsibility, Verité – to address the complex matters of child labour and related issues. For example, Philip Morris International (PMI) implemented its Agricultural Labour Practices (ALP) Programme in 2011 and this latest progress report covers more than 60,000 Malawian farms from which PMI buys tobacco, either directly or indirectly through tobacco leaf suppliers.

More than 100 new field technicians joined PMI’s suppliers’ teams to provide farmers with individual technical and financial assistance to help improve the quality and quantity of their tobacco yield, while progressively reporting and, where issues where found, eliminating labour abuses at farm level. When CLEAR developed a series of educational illustrations around the official list of what is considered hazardous work for farm children, the field technicians as part of their effort included the distribution and use of these educational materials at farm level.

We have also witnessed the use of pilot projects initiated by the leaf suppliers to promote better harvesting and curing techniques. These projects aim to assist farmers to reduce their costs and minimize the involvement of their children in tobacco production.

In addition, hundreds of village committees have been created to help raise awareness of the damaging effects of child labour and forums have been established for farmers, farm workers and their families to discuss these issues.

As CLEAR pointed out in its 2011 study, “The Causes Fuelling Child Labour are Multiple, Complex and Interlinked and therefore Interventions Must Also Be Complex and Multi-Dimensional”. However, we are only able to effectively address issues when they are identified. Once that has been done, which we see happening today, we can develop a systematic approach to eliminate these abuses from the supply chain.

One of the encouraging findings we can take from the ALP report is that the leaf supplier field technicians are using more systematic internal monitoring processes, particularly to identify “prompt action” situations. As a result, more than 2,000 incidents were registered, with the majority of the concerns (85%) relating to work being done by farmers’ children.

The work being undertaken by those described above, and many others, reassures me that the NPACL is not simply a lengthy and venerable report but a tangible and explicit call to action.

We all know that poor economic conditions of families in the agricultural sector compel parents to involve their children in their farming activities, often compromising school attendance and educational performance. We understand the complex daily realities and challenges faced on farms which then lead to labour abuses.

But we also know that our Constitution protects children under the age of 16 from “economic exploitation” and from work that is “hazardous, interferes with education or that is harmful to their health, physical, mental and spiritual or social development”.

Agriculture, however, is the body of our economy and its backbone is tobacco. Tobacco contributes 11 to 13% of the total GDP, and accounts for 60% of foreign exchange earnings. It employs 12% of the population and accounts for 25% of taxes collected in Malawi.

The 2013 season was the first time of the formal implementation of Integrated Production System (IPS), enabling leaf suppliers to establish direct contractual relationships with farmers. IPS is intended to address the issues of over-production that has previously suppressed market prices, discouraging tobacco farmers and resulting in underproduction in the 2012 season. We can all recall the damaging effect this had on the country’s foreign exchange and economic livelihoods of Malawians.

IPS stabilized the tobacco market with most of the farmers who participated benefiting from superior returns as the system provided training and access to loans and fertilizers. Under IPS, tobacco leaf growers have almost doubled their yields per hectare, compared to the yields of the non-IPS farmers. In 2013, average tobacco yields were around 1,700kg/ha versus 800 kg/ha for most small holders non funded farmers. This improved quality has also resulted in an average increase of 5% on price for the IPS crop. In addition, IPS support to food production seems to have had a positive impact on farmers’ maize crop harvests, helping them reach 4,500 kg/ha, which is an increase from the previous average of 2,000 kg/ha, thus contributing to food security.

The broader benefits are important for Malawi. We need to remain the major producing country of burley tobacco in order to keep attracting customers and contribute to our foreign exchange reserves. This means we must actively participate in the integrity of the agricultural process through the elimination of child and forced labour and the provision of safe working environments. The government concurs with other stakeholders that a supply-chain wide approach, involving all the stakeholders, is essential to progressively eliminate labour abuses on farms. We are sure that our new Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, Hon Dr. Allan Chiyembekeza will address this issue and TCC looks forward to his direction on the matter.

We believe that for Malawi to sustain its progress, it is critical to create more options for farmers to send their children to school and establish connections with governmental entities and collaborating agents and expert third parties that can address this and other such sensitive issues. To this effect and following the landmark National Conference on Child Labour in Agriculture, the government has agreed to strengthen the Child Labour Unit under the Ministry of Labour.

Much remains to be done, but concerted systems are now in place to measure and address issues of child labour and other labour related issues on our farms. This is a significant milestone for Malawi.


Dr. Bruce Munthali is the Chief Executive Officer of the Tobacco Control Commission of Malawi.

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