Malawi child labour and tobacco

Malawi has the highest incidence of child labour in southern Africa. 88.9% of the children in the age group 5-14 work in the agricultural sector, where tobacco estates are highly represented. The number of children working on tobacco farms in Malawi has been estimated at 78,000 although the actual number is thought to be much higher.
Previous research gives some information on the different activities children are engaged in on tobacco farms, some information about the hazards children face and some understanding of why children are involved in this work. But very little work has been done with children themselves to find out how they experience and understand the work they do or to find out what children see as the best form of intervention. For this reason Plan Malawi decided to undertake this participatory study. The research will be used to inform the work Plan and its partners in Malawi are doing to raise awareness of child labour on tobacco farms, to advocate for changed conditions and to develop interventions for the affected children.
The research approach was a participatory one in which 44 children (aged 12-18) from three districts across Malawi (Lilongwe, Kasungu and Mzimba) took part in a series of workshops. All of the children had worked full-time on tobacco farms during the 2007/2008 season. 16 were working full-time on tobacco farms at the time of the research and 18 part-time. The children worked on a range of different farms from large estates to small family farms. All worked outside their own families. Parents and para-civic educators were also consulted. The workshops, which were carefully constructed to take into account ethical issues, included drawing, mapping, storytelling and discussion. All of the discussion was recorded and transcribed and this formed the data which was analysed using thematic analysis. The findings are presented under the set of themes that emerged from the analysis. Hard work, long hours and little pay The children did the full range of tasks on the farms; there was no differentiation between work done by children and adults. Most of the children worked for 12 hours a day though some worked for much longer. Apart from the break for lunch (usually the only meal of the day) there were few breaks.
The unrelenting nature of the work was one of the issues raised by the children. Children reported that the work was often too hard for their size and that they often had pay deducted if they did not finish the work given for that day. The average daily wage earned by the children in the study was MK26 (USD0.18), reportedly less than that of adults. The children reported often being paid according to the work they did and some had worked with parents to help parents finish their quota of work. One of the issues that concerned children was that they were often paid less than the amount they were promised at the beginning of the season. Most reported that the money they earned was not enough to meet the needs at home that had motivated them to seek work in the first place.

Why we are working
The main reason children gave for working was poverty at home. Lack of food, clothes and the need to mend their houses as well as the need for fertiliser and seed for their family farms were common needs at home. School fees (for secondary school) and school needs were also common reasons given for working. It was clear that it was the children themselves who chose to work because of the situation at home. In fact many of them expressed a strong sense of responsibility toward their families, particularly those living with aging grandparents, or ill or disabled parents. One significant finding is that though the criteria for selecting the children did not include vulnerability (para-civic educators were told to find ‘children who were working on tobacco farms’) it emerged that a large majority of the children came from elderly-headed households or orphan households. 22 of the children in the sample were double orphans and 12 were single orphans. This suggests that children from vulnerable families are more likely to be involved in child labour.

Impact of work on children
Apart from aching muscles caused by work that was too hard for them and the beatings they experienced the children reported a number of troubling physical symptoms. Health problems that are related to lack of access to soap and water and time to bath were commonly reported. Symptoms of Green Tobacco Sickness were widely reported though none of the children linked these symptoms to the tobacco they handled. In addition, children reported coughing and breathlessness caused by tobacco dust during sorting and grading. Coughing of blood was another widely reported physical condition especially after hard work such as carrying heavy loads. This is likely to be related to TB but further tests would need to be conducted to confirm this. Significant psychosocial impacts were also reported. Many of these can be linked to emotional stress caused by the trauma of the working conditions and to unprocessed grief at the loss of parents. The most significant of these were sleeping problems and nightmares, continual sadness and a feeling of powerlessness or lack of locus of control.

Discrimination within the community
Children reported experiencing discrimination from adults and peers in their communities. This discrimination was related to their working status and most often stigmatised them as unwashed and ‘stupid’ because they were not at school. But children were also discriminated against because they were orphans and poor. Ideas for interventions/solutions Children had many ideas for ways in which their lives could be improved. Some of them said that child labour should be banned, but more pragmatically, most discussed ways in which they could combine work with school. The need for education and the wish to go to school was of absolute importance to all of them. They talked about how they wanted better working conditions, work that was suited to their size, regular rest times, sufficient food and fair payment for work done. Other suggestions included a help-line for children to report abuse, support in the form of school materials and help with resources for their farms so they could grow enough food and not need to work on the tobacco farms.


A set of recommendations around advocacy, public education and direct intervention for working children is included in the report. These include the need to use the information in the report to inform advocacy around poverty alleviation, particularly in relation to vulnerable households. The report provides powerful stories that can be used to lobby for stronger punishment for those who break labour laws and employ children and to lobby for more effective implementation of the labour laws that do exist. The report also provides evidence for use in advocacy programmes around access to schooling generally and the need for programmes to help working children who wish to return to school. The need for research into school models that cater for working children is another recommendation raised in the report. A set of recommendations is made in relation to the health status of working children. These include access to health services, particularly testing for TB and HIV. A number of recommendations are also made around public education. These include the need to educate the general public about vulnerable children and the need to care for them rather than to discriminate against them. Education around child rights for children and for adults should also be a priority. Para-civic educators are a potential resource for education campaigns at local level. This public education needs specifically to include programmes for children who are not working about children who are working. Mechanisms that allow children to report abuses at work and programmes that offer psychosocial support for working children should be a priority.

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