Tag Archives: exploitation

When beggars should be choosers – How the promise of remuneration is heading off freedom of movement and free choice of employment in Malawi

Not long after cutting their teeth, North American children are encouraged to call forward their dreams and consider the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The kindergartners’ query is not a foreign concept in Malawi – in fact, up to December 2010 Blantyre Newspapers Limited’s (BNL) Saturday paper Malawi News regularly ran a “When I Grow Up” piece encouraging parents to help their children picture and pledge their ambition for the future.

At the same time the query is not yet ubiquitous – as a country that ranks in the lowest group on the Human Development Index (171 out of 187 countries in 2011), problems such as poverty and underdevelopment mean that for many, filling their stomach is difficult enough to do without considering the most fulfilling way to do it.  And for 21-year-old Alinafe Phiri and her friends at the Nkhata Bay boma, it means that when you ask what they want, they simply tell you how it is instead.

According to Phiri, it isn’t uncommon for girls to be taken from their homes in Nkhata Bay to “faraway places” where they work as house girls.  Others are taken from their homes to work in bars.

“This is considered normal because they are paid something at the end of the day,” she said.  “Isn’t it normal for someone to be taken from their homes for work in faraway areas?  What about those that leave their villages and work elsewhere in cities or otherwise?”

No mention is made of the use of force implicated in being taken to faraway places for work – a form of human trafficking – or of unrealized universal human rights to free movement and free choice of employment.

On May 16 Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) held a public discussion at the Nkhata Bay Conference Centre to discuss where and why human trafficking occurs in Malawi. Photo by Karissa Gall.

To raise awareness of such rights abuses, Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) held a public discussion at the Nkhata Bay Conference Centre on May 16.  Three panellists were on hand: Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO) District Manager for Nkhata Bay Wezzie Mtonga, Nkhata Bay Police Station Community Policing Coordinator Brown Ngalu and NCA Programme Coordinator for Human Trafficking Habiba Osman.

During the discussion, Mtonga said that the area is a “hotspot of instances of human trafficking” for the purposes of labour, sexual exploitation, organ removal, or domestic servitude, and that Malawian women like Phiri are the most vulnerable to being victimised “because of their vulnerability when it comes to economic issues.”

“One of the reasons people fall victim to human trafficking is they are looking for greener pastures, and when they go there, things are different,” she said.  “Malawians are vulnerable and they don’t have access to (anti-trafficking) laws.”

Osman, one of the commissioners involved in the drafting of an anti-trafficking bill in 2007, took the opportunity to stress that “the bill is ready, cabinet approved it, so what we need is parliamentarians to discuss it and pass it into law to give us a framework on what should be done and who should be doing what.”

Norwegian Church Aid Programme Coordinator for Human Trafficking Habiba Osman. Photo by Karen Msiska.

“The problem is huge, it is diverse,” she said.  “We need awareness, we need a lot of capacity building not only for the police but other service providers, and we also do need proper data collecting mechanisms.

“We do not have people coming to report on cases of human trafficking because they have been not been trained to collect data, they have not been trained to identify the victims; they have not been trained to identify the traffickers,” she continued.  “Even our parliamentarians also need training on these issues.

“A new cabinet means that new people are in place.  We need to put pressure on them to tackle these issues.”

In the interim, Osman cited Section 27 of the Malawi Constitution, which prohibits slavery, as a standing protection against human trafficking or “modern-day slavery.”  She also cited the Employment Act, the Penal Code, the Corrupt Practices Act, Immigrations policies and the Corrupt Practices Act as statutes that criminalise certain transactions appearing in the various forms of trafficking.


Despite Malawi having adopted the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons in 2005 and making progress towards the guarantee of protections for children with the launch of a universal and compulsory birth registration process this March, the International Trade Union Confederation 2011 report for the World Trade Organization on Internationally Recognised Core Labour Standards in Malawi found that, “Trafficking is a problem and is conducted mainly for the purposes of forced labour for males and commercial sexual exploitation for females, as well as child trafficking which has also been steadily rising.”

“Typically the traffickers deceive their victims by offering them false promises of employment or education in the country of destination.  In Malawi there are also estimated to be between 500 and 1500 women and children who are victims of internal trafficking,” reads the report.

“In 2009 the authorities arrested and prosecuted child traffickers who intended to deliver boys to cattle herders.  Other usual destinations of internally trafficked persons are the tobacco plantations, domestic servitude, and small businesses.”

The United States Department of State 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report for Malawi further found that while government “is making significant efforts” the country still “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

“Adults in forced prostitution or forced labour and children exploited in domestic service and prostitution still did not receive adequate attention and the government prosecuted no such offences during the reporting period,” reads the report.

“While one trafficking offender received a short prison sentence, most convictions resulted in sentences of fines or out-of-court settlements with compensation to victims, both of which failed to provide an adequate deterrent.”

While comprehensive anti-trafficking law enforcement statistics were unavailable, the report found that some individual districts provided data on their actions, totalling 18 prosecutions, 11 of which concluded with convictions.

“Although the government prosecuted and convicted offenders using existing legislation, only one of nine convicted offenders served jail time and sentences varied widely across district courts,” the report continues.  “Additionally, labour inspectors and child protection officers were trained to seek remuneration for workers in labour dispute cases – including forced labour – rather than to refer to law enforcement for prosecution.”

According to the report, “the government’s continued failure to seek criminal prosecution of forced labour offenses with significant prison sentences hinders an effective response to Malawi’s trafficking problem.”

In Malawi, the Inter-Ministerial Taskforce on Human Trafficking, led by the Ministry of Gender, Child Development and Community Development; the National Steering Committee on Orphans and Vulnerable Children; and the National Steering Committee on Child Labour have responsibility for trafficking issues.


Individuals who are aware of any incident of human trafficking in Malawi can contact the YONECO anonymous National Help Line for assistance by calling 8000-1234.  YONECO encourages victims of human trafficking to call the help line as the centre will mobilise to free them and provide counselling and support.


With files from BNL-Mzuzu Bureau Chief Karen Msiska

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.

One more round for Little Rabbit

We met at a bar in Adabraka.

He’s short, just shy of five and a half feet, though powerfully built. His rowdy appearance intensified by an ill-fitting shirt and trousers. His lips crack a smile to reveal gapped teeth and fermented breath, yet he moves with remarkable grace for a drunkard.

He says his name is Kweku Abraham Jafar. He’s the son of a fisherman, a boxer and people once called him Adanko Deka. The moniker loosely translated means, Little Rabbit who owes, a nod to the Ga fables and an indication of his agility. He says, in his prime he wore title belts, became a symbol of national pride and earned every scar in the ring.

The seam of a stitched cut is still noticeable over his left eye despite the passage of time since it opened. This is one of many flaws marking the man’s forehead and brow line. His knuckles are scratched, misshapen and damaged, all traits of someone who earned a living with their fists.

“Tattoo man, cedis for a star?” he asks.

Probably not best to enable, I think. But my hand is already in my pocket pulling out some spare change.

“Medaase,” he says, counting the coins in his palm.

The pub is the closest place to my office to buy cigarettes. I was there on lunch break and running short of time. We part ways as he orders another bottle from the bartender.

Back at work, I ask one of the sports reporters, Afrane, if he had heard of the man. His answer is an emphatic yes. Little Rabbit, he says, is from his neighborhood. Bukom square in Jamestown, the heart of boxing in Ghana. Afrane tells me about the time Little Rabbit went to Lagos to fight for the West African Featherweight title.

In 1988, the champion is a Nigerian called Stone Punch, and the eyes of both nations are fixed on the ring. Afrane is just a boy watching his hero fight on the only television in Bukom. “It was a small black and white box in the back of a busy tailor’s shop. Everyone was crowded in the there. Even the old fish ladies came to watch,” he says.

Deka wasn’t much older than the reporter. He turned pro at 12, barely 17 as he enters the ring. His opponent has age, experience and a home town crowd behind him. But Little Rabbit is always hard to catch.

Afrane and I decide to hunt through drinking spots, dives and notorious hang-outs to find Deka. We hear he has been there but always arrive just a little too late. In each pub, we leave my business card and instructions to tell Little Rabbit we are looking for him.

Third round, Stone Punch lurches forward in an attempt to pin Little Rabbit in a corner. He clinches to neutralize the younger fighter’s speed. The two clash heads and a cut becomes visible over the Ghanaian’s left eye. The tailor’s shop goes silent. Everyone fears a stoppage as the referee inspects the wound. The ref asks Deka if he wishes to continue. Blood trickles to the canvas as he nods confirmation and the tailor’s shop become raucous once more.

“He was our fighter,” Afrane says, as we walk along the causeway in a neighborhood called Asylum Down. Nearly everywhere we hear myths about the mysterious figure but nothing solid we can use to track him. We seek guidance from Barmaids, Tenders and assorted Rummies. Some say they’ve seen him working a steel mill in Tema or pushing a rock kart on the shoreline of Lake Volta.

“His wife and daughter sell fish in Apam. Try there,” says a woman with a gold tooth.

“He died years ago in an Achimodo flophouse,” says a grey-haired man. Most know him, but none know his whereabouts.

Round five, little rabbits fight best when they are cornered. Perhaps the sight of his blood ignited survival instinct, for Deka has become ferocious. Stone Punch is on his heels trying to keep the challenger at a distance. Little Rabbit closes the gap with targeted straight punches. The attack climaxes with a right hook to the liver, left upper cut to the breadbasket and a right cross to the jaw. The combination almost propels the champion out of the ring, but the ropes keep him in bounds. He falls forward his face hits the mat and it is clear he is unconscious.

“Everybody screamed, danced, and went crazy,” recalls Afrane. “We were sure he’d be the next World Champ.”

March 6th, is the anniversary of Ghanaian independence and an otherwise slow news day. Afrane and I are standing in the parking lot killing time when Little Rabbit walks through the gate. He has a friend with him, a giant of a man who introduces himself as Shapiro.

“He stays with me,” says the giant. “I make sure he chops (eats) everyday, give him some clothes if I have them. Sometimes when he drinks he says he wants to die. I tell him not to drink.” Shapiro says they share a room in Accra Central. The pair were both orphaned in boyhood. Back then, they spent their time roaming around Jamestown. “He was always wanting to go to the ring (Bukom square). He’d watch the fighters, tell me he could beat them. Imagine that, even as a small boy he say he can beat men.”

“I need to fight again,” says Little Rabbit. He lunges forward steadies his balance then strikes, locked in battle with an invisible opponent. He says he is sober but his eyes remain clouded by a compound of head trauma and prolonged alcohol abuse. He smiles, removes his shirt and continues his combat dance through the parking lot.

“All those times, I’d stop four men a month but I could never get good money.” He says he was given 2 million cedis (old currency equivalent to $125.00 Canadian) for each match. Promoters promised more but he was black-listed after he came to collect. “They rob me, took my title even though I knocked him (the challenger Bilal Mohammed) down three times. People still ask me how the other man won.”

The man Deka says robbed him is Samir Captan. Once the country’s principle fight promoter, now the President of the Ghana Boxing Authority. Captan refused comment on the story but approved our request for access to the GBA’s archive. Officially, Kweku Abraham Jafar had 65 professional fights and holds a dismal record of 22-42-1 with 16 wins coming by way of knockout. This ratio fails to recognize a peculiar trend. His first lost cost him the West African Featherweight belt and left his record at a respectable 19-1. Nearly all the the matches after are against opponents much larger than him.

“I fought Bazooka,” says Deka. A reference to former World Welterweight Champion Ike “Bazooka” Quartey. “He was too big, the ref stopped it in the first round.” There were more fights like this. Deka sent in to be punished by opponents with notable size advantages. His last official bout was five years ago. It ended in the fourth round with Deka face down on the mat. He says in the time since, he’s competed in non-sanctioned bouts organized by a slew of Ghanaian promoters. “I needed to fight to eat. I still do.”

Afrane writes a piece called “Down but not out” it announces Deka’s plan to return to the ring. A few days pass before Little Rabbit comes in to get his copy. Now he’s in his forties, and his fighting prime has passed. A circumstance even the greats often fail to accept. Boxing and alcohol have left heavy imprints on his life. His career ended with him broke and he began to drink. His wife left him, taking their daughter and he began to drink more. He descended into alcoholism and despair, but his eyes twinkle as he shadowboxes in front of me. It may seem the ring was unkind to to him yet on any given day between the sun’s rise and set somewhere in Accra is Little Rabbit waiting for one more round.