Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Malawian Child Labour and the True Cost of a Cigarette

Most third world nations are associated with one main crop that they export for profit, colloquially we refer to them as banana republics.  This means that instead of growing food to feed a nation, farmers are producing a crop for profit, which means that third world citizens are vastly undernourished in comparison to first world citizens.  We have commodified agriculture to the point where have devalued its main purpose – sustenance.

image Malawi ‘s main export product is tobacco for the US and Europe.  Children working in this industry make an average of eighteen cents US, per twelve hour day.  If they do not complete the work assigned to them for the day, their pay is deducted. Within that twelve hour period they are given one break for lunch and this often constitutes the only meal that they will eat for the day. 4.7 percent of the children that labour in the tobacco industry have never attended school.  Those that do attend school, must balance their studies with their labour.

Unlike many kids in the west, who get paper routes for pocket money, these children labour to provide food for their families, pay school fees, uniform fees, the purchase of fertilizer and seed ,as well as to insure that their homes or shelters are in a liveable condition.  These children work for the necessities of life that so many in the western world take for granted, with our sense of entitlement.

The problem I have drawn is that the work I do is beyond my size. It is
painful for me. (boy, 12, L)
We are given a heavy job that is beyond our level and when we don’t
finish the job the trouble goes over to our parents because they will be
told that their children are failing to do the job. (girl, 15, K)

My story is about going to the maize field to weed, from there I am then
told to go to fetch water using a very big can and from there they said
the water is not enough so I could continue fetching more water. So the
problem that we’re facing is that whenever I’m done with fetching water, I
must go back to weeding in the maize field. From there they tell me to
cut the trees after that I’ll go to pick the tobacco and whenever I am
feeling tired, they hit me so I must still do all the things they instructed
me to do. Sometimes I am instructed to go to pound the maize and when
I fail to do that as I have to be quick I have to stop so that I can go to the
field again. Sometimes when they fight with me about the work I need to
do I just run away. (girl, 15, K)

If this were not enough, the children also inhale the equivalent of fifty cigarettes a day during their labour. They report shortness of breath, coughing, and coughing up blood.   Some researches further believe that the intake of nicotine, is extremely damaging for a child’s brain chemistry, in that it acts very differently in them than adults.

Their problems do not stop there.  As with many other vulnerable workers world wide they are subject to sexual and physical abuse:

You may find the boss or supervisor may make a girl pregnant more
especially the teenage girls, the young ones.
Because of the difficulties at home girls can agree to sleep with the
supervisor to get some money.
Sometimes the supervisor proposes to the girl at the job and the girls
agree then their work is less but they get the same money. (girls and
boys, M)

Sometimes you do not get paid because the boss has not registered
you. Because he wants to sleep with you and then you say no. Then there is
a lot of problems. They just call your name but they don’t record it and
at the end of the month you get less pay because they did not record your name every day. They punish you like this. It happened to me. The boss asked me. I said no and he doesn’t register my name.

When you’re working and you feel like resting. They (supervisors) come
to you and shout at you. Sometimes when you are digging and you want to stretch so you stand up straight he comes to you to say, ‘don’t stretch, come on keep on working!’ something like that. Or you just want to go and drink water and they send you back. They shout.They also beat. At the back, anywhere, as long as you’re close by they hit you. You go to drink water, the minute the boss sees you he says, ‘Don’t go, go back to your work!’ and because you are thirsty you want the water, when you insist he beats you.


Tobacco is is just one of the many products that we consume that is produced by slave labour.  Each day when we make our purchases, we give little thought to where these commodities actually come from. Whether it is the cheaply produced clothing in Walmart, the sweet tasting chocolate bar, or the bitter cup of coffee, all of these items come at a cost that is much more than what we actually pay for them. 

When we read or see stories about child labour, we feel sorry for these children and yet their images rapidly leave our mind, the moment we begin to consume because our economy and indeed our very way of life is built upon consumerism rather than subsistence.  In truth, we don’t want to live to like them and firmly believe that any change that involves reducing our economic privilege would lead to a life without convenience and that is not something that we are ready to tolerate. 

There are those that would say that more development is the path to global equalization and yet we know that due to unfair trading practices, any further change is likely to favour western nations.  Though a finished product is far more likely to result in larger profit, third world nations are penalized through tariffs and are therefore forced to export raw material, thus using up their natural resources at a much higher rate to equal the same amount of profit.

This way of life that we have chosen is not only hubris, it is plain madness.  The planet cannot sustain this rate of development.  As third world countries seek to industrialize, we further deplete our natural resources and release toxins into the air and water.  In the west we judge them for this behaviour, forgetting how we marvelled over the smoke stacks in London and other urban areas during industrialization. 

We need to rethink what we think of as progress and begin to factor in the human, as well as environmental cost.  These children are beaten, sexually abused, uneducated and over worked, all for the sake of a cigarette.  It has been said repeatedly, that the love of money is the route of all evil and the testimonies of Malawian children certainly affirm this.

For more information, please contact:
Plan Malawi
2nd Floor
Off Independence Drive
Casa de Shez Building
PO Box 2053
Lilongwe
Malawi
Tel: +265 1 770 946
Fax: +265 1 774 479
Email: malawi.co@plan-international.org