Minister of Labour, Youth, Sports and Manpower Development Henry Mussa has argued that having the Tenancy Labour Bill in place would not, on its own, guarantee an improvement in the welfare of the tenant.
Mussa was speaking in Lilongwe on Tuesday during a consultative workshop on the Bill where delegates expressed mixed reactions on proposals to regulate or abolish use of tenancy labour in tobacco production.
“What we are saying is that this system is not only evil, but also detrimental to the country’s development drive whose beacon lies in agriculture,” said Mussa.
“ We cannot expect to effectively grow our economy when a large proportion of our farmers remain trapped under the poverty line,” he added.
Under the tenancy system, estate owners, normally called landlords, recruit farmers from distant districts to grow tobacco for them on their estates. The tenants are offered accommodation and food rations on monthly basis as well as a cut of the earnings from sales proceeds
The Tenancy Labour Bill was first drafted in 1995 and redrafted in 2005. It seeks to end the tenancy system widely regarded as highly exploitative.
According to a 2015 study by the Centre for Social Concern (CfSC), tenants crucially provide the largest labour input in tobacco farms, accounting for 63 percent of the required labour force to produce tobacco and prepare it for sale.
However, the study—titled Tobacco Production and Tenancy Labour in Malawi—observes that tenancy labour in its current practice is characterised by very low returns and often exploitative arrangements that marginalise and degrade the workers.
The study was done in five districts of Kasungu, Lilongwe, Mchinji, Mzimba and Rumphi and was complemented with data collected from the district labour offices in Mulanje, Thyolo, Zomba and Machinga.
Among other key issues, the study established that 77 percent of the sampled tenants migrated from the Southern Region to the tobacco growing districts in the Central and Northern regions. The migration labour force consists in reality of whole families, although formally only the head of the family is employed.
The study says 51 percent of the tenants’ household members are women and girls of not more than 18 years.
“Although formally, only the head of the family is employed as a tenant, generally estate owners prefer married couples to single individuals as tenants,” adds the study.
Such systems, says the study, encourage child labour as 15 percent of children have been involved in casual labour and a total of 55 percent of children handled tobacco in readiness for curing and selling.
Despite the poor living and working conditions, a limited number of estate owners adhere to government officially-sanctioned prices and procedures. Only 11 percent of the estate owners followed the officially-sanctioned system.
“These are mostly the large-scale estates owners and 72 percent of the estate owners used average systems of purchasing the leaf from the tenants,” says the study.
Such inhuman conditions have given rise to complaints among tenants as the study found that a total of 91 percent of complaints in labour offices are those reported by tenants against the estate owners.
The chilling findings have moved CfSC to call for the abolition of the tenancy labour system in the country.
“In this day and age, current tenancy labour practices should be discouraged, if not abolished. Evidence has shown that the tenancy labour problems cannot simply be wished away, something needs to be done,” says CfSC director Father Jos Kuppens.Follow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :