Female tobacco workers on a tobacco farm in Salima, Malawi.  Photo by Kara Stevenson.

Exploitation of Malawi’s tobacco tenants

Children tobacco workers on a tobacco farm in Salima, Malawi. Photo by Kara Stevenson.

Eletina Mwale has worked on several tobacco estates since 1985. Currently, she works on a tobacco farm in Salima, Malawi.

“I have been in several farms from Kasungu to the northern region. We meet a lot of problems. The water is bad, our children do not go to school and we live very far from hospitals,” said Mwale.

The most difficult conditions lie amongst the women who work and live on the farms. Mwale said often women are forced to sleep with the estate owner’s for money, food, transport.

“What other choice do we have? We are poor. We have nothing,” she said.

Being exploited and abused, tobacco tenants in central Malawi are grossly underpaid, deprived of medical insurance, and have no choice but to work without contracts under dire working conditions.

With none or little education, money and especially with no other employment, tobacco tenants earn around 200 kwacha ($1.25 CDN) per day. Food and health care are sometimes subtracted from their wages.

In Malawi 200 kwacha can buy vegetables and low-grade fruits. The amount of food a tobacco farmer can afford can hardly sustain their families. Most live with extended families, usually in a small one-room hut made of mud and straw.

As they salvage whatever income they can find to support their families, these tenants suffer at the hands of the tobacco estate owners – some of whom sit before Malawi’s National Assembly, say activists.

Malawi’s Centre for Social Concern (CFSC) is a non-government organization that has taken part in advocating against the exploitation and abuse of tobacco tenants.

Female tobacco workers on a tobacco farm in Salima, Malawi. Photo by Kara Stevenson.

Father Bill Turnbull, the acting director of CFSC said they have been lobbying for the Tenancy Labor Bill, which was drafted in 1995 to regulate tenancy labour by clarifying the rights and obligations of estate owners and tenants – a solution to demolish the exploitation.

Turnbull said the bill would be beneficial for both tobacco tenants and estate owners.

“For tenants, he or she will have a written contract. Same goes for the estate owners; they will know exactly where they stood with what is going on,” said Turnbull.

It’s been 17 years since the proposal of the bill and it has yet to pass in parliament. The CFSC argues that the delay is most likely caused by the vested interests.

However, the Minister of Labour, Dr. Lucious Kanyumba, denies such interests.

“It was proposed during the United Democratic Front (UDF) regime. I cannot be in a position to answer why it is taking so long to pass the bill, but you have to appreciate that this Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government has fought for this Bill to be considered,” said Kanyumba.

Meanwhile, Goodall Gondwe, Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Environment is known to own a tobacco farm in Lilongwe, Malawi called, Nzanzi Estate. Gondwe claims that living conditions are seemingly better on his estate, and although he said a wage of 171 kwacha ($1.08 CDN) per day is not a sufficient income for a tobacco worker, the laborers on his tobacco estate are, in fact, paid 171 kwacha per day.

In addition, minimum wage in Malawi is 178 kwacha ($1.12 CDN) per day. Gondwe’s workers make under the minimum wage amount.

Many non-government organizations that advocate change remain optimistic that the bill will pass in parliament.

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About Kara Stevenson

Kara has always dreamt of working as a journalist while overseas. She was overjoyed to be chosen as the Radio Rights Trainer at Zodiac Radio in Lilongwe, Malawi so that she could finally combine her passions for travelling and journalism. Although this is not her first visit to the African continent, it will be the first time she has been to Malawi. In 2009, Kara graduated with a B.A. (Hons.) in Communication Studies and Sociology from York University, and a Diploma in Journalism Broadcasting from Seneca College. She has worked at CFRE 91.9FM “Next Level Radio” as a co-host, 680News Radio in Toronto as a Web Journalist and Reporter, and at Rogers Television as a Reporter where she produced her own stories for a lifestyle program.

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