Tobacco firms to ask London court to dismiss Malawi exploitation case

Two of the world’s biggest tobacco companies that operate in Malawi are set to ask the high court in London on Wednesday to strike out a case against them alleging that their desire to make profits has led to the exploitation of Malawian farmers and their children.

According to the The Guardian, the two UK based British American Tobacco (BAT) and Imperial Brands, deny the allegations and are asking the court to dismiss the case on the grounds that lawyers for the farming families cannot prove the tobacco they grew ended up in their cigarettes and other products.

The UK publication reported that families are trafficked from southern Malawi, according to Leigh Day solicitors, their lawyers, to tobacco-growing regions in the north.

Lawyers are seeking compensation for child labourers and their parents in the high court in London. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The solicitors allege that once in the north, these families build their own homes from tree branches and leaves and work seven days a week in the fields. They receive a small portion of maize each day to feed their family and live largely by borrowing money until harvest time at the end of the season, when they are paid for the crop. Loans and the costs of farming supplies are deducted and some end up in debt.

In their submission the lawyers argue their conditions of work breach the definition of forced labour, unlawful compulsory labour and exploitation under Malawian law.

Leigh Day solicitors also this practice breach the UK Modern Slavery Act, article 14 of the European convention on human rights and the International Labour Organization definition of forced labour.

Once the tobacco is harvested they sell all their crop to a leaf-buying company in Malawi, which they say supplies BAT and Imperial.

Although BAT and Imperial want proof that the families’ tobacco ended up in their products, Leigh Day, the London-based firm representing thousands of Malawian farming families, say the companies have refused to disclose documents they hold which will show whether their tobacco is sourced from the specific families bringing the claim which has been joined by several thousand of Malawi’s poorest tobacco tenant farmers.

The Guardian quotes a spokesman for Imperial who said: “It would be inappropriate to comment on this ongoing litigation, other than to reiterate that we will defend the claim.”

It also quotes a BAT spokesperson saying: “BAT believes that there is no legal or factual basis to bring these claims, therefore BAT has made an application for the claims to be struck out or stayed.

“We are unable to provide further comment ahead of the hearing.”

The publication also quotes Martyn Day, senior partner at Leigh Day, saying: “The heart of the claim is that two of the largest tobacco companies in the world cynically exploited impoverished tobacco farmers from Malawi and their children.

“Fortunately the two defendant companies are based here in Britain giving our courts jurisdiction to adjudicate these claims.” He said he was optimistic the judge would allow the claims to progress toward a full trial.

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