Smoking Kills: Child Labor on Malawi’s Tobacco Farms
Tobacco is Malawi’s top export but at the cost of its children’s health and education.
By Anna Rabin
Landlocked and with approximately 80% of its population living in rural areas, Malawi’s economy is largely structured around its agricultural sector. Agriculture accounts for more than one third of the Malawi’s gross domestic product (GDP) and 90% of its export revenues. Tobacco alone comprises over half of Malawi’s exports.
While large-scale cultivation of tobacco has historically been concentrated in the United States, today approximately 75% of the world’s tobacco is harvested in developing countries. Malawi is now one of the world’s five largest producers, and it appeals to cigarette companies “largely due to low tariffs on unmanufactured tobacco imports, cheap labor and lack of regulations.”
But although the tobacco industry brings in a significant amount of foreign capital, the rapid growth of Malawi’s largely unregulated tobacco industry raises questions about the health and wellbeing of the industry’s workers.
The transfer of tobacco cultivation to countries such as Malawi has increased the profits enjoyed by cigarette companies. However, a portion of these profits is derived from the use of child labor. According to Professor Stanton Glantz, “replacing child labor with adults paid the minimum wage would increase the production costs by $10 million per year in Malawi alone.”
Although Plan International’s campaign against the use of child labor in Malawi has successfully deterred larger farms, small-scale farms continue to exploit children. A study by the group revealed the true extent of such labor, finding that “37% of children aged between 5 and 15 were involved in labor”, and that “of these, 53.5% worked in agriculture – including fishing, forestry and hunting – but most were working in tobacco production”. Children earn approximately $0.17 for working 12-hour days.
The Malawian government has been particularly lenient in prosecuting those found to be employing children. According to MacDonald Mumba, Plan International’s Malawi advisor, “over the past two years, only 49 farm owners have been prosecuted in Malawi…most received a $34 fine.” Although Malawi is a member of the International Labour Organization, the government appears to be prioritizing the procurement of foreign capital over protecting the rights of the country’s children.
Progress in realizing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), in particular goal two (the achievement of universal primary education), is being undermined as the government turns a blind eye to the 80,000 children working illegally on tobacco farms. Malawi’s potential for reaching goal two has previously been characterized as “possible to achieve if some changes are made”, but if the government fails to redress the violation of child labor laws, further progress will be jeopardized.
It must be noted, however, that many of the children working on tobacco farms do so to supplement their families’ meager earnings. In order to successfully eliminate child labor then, a holistic approach including the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger must be undertaken.
The health of those working in the tobacco fields are also at risk. Due to the lack of protective clothing, many of those working on the farms suffer from Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS). According to the World Health Organization, symptoms of GTS include “severe headaches, abdominal cramps, muscle weakness, breathing difficulties, diarrhea and vomiting, high blood pressure and fluctuations in heart rate”. It is estimated that people working in tobacco fields without adequate protection absorb close to 54 milligrams of nicotine per day. That is equivalent to smoking 50 cigarettes.
While GTS is dangerous to all, it is particularly hazardous to children. A child’s brain is particularly susceptible to nicotine absorption. As Neal Benowitz, Professor of Medicine, Psychiatry and Biopharmaceutical Sciences, explains “numerous animal studies have shown that administration of nicotine during childhood and adolescence produces long-lasting changes in brain structure and function, as well as behavioral changes, that are not seen when nicotine is administered to adults. Thus the brain of a child or adolescent is particularly vulnerable to long-lasting adverse neurobehavioral effects of nicotine exposure.”
The Malawian government’s continued prioritization of foreign currency earnings over its commitment to abolishing child labor has serious repercussions. Not only does the government’s leniency directly contradict its commitment to the MDGs, but it also imperils the health of child workers. Abolishing child labor in Malawi will only be achieved through a multilateral commitment that includes the government, the growers and the purchasers of Malawi’s tobacco.
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