British American Tobacco (BAT) defended its policies to prevent the use of child labour on Friday, November 1, 2019 following a claim that farmers in Malawi were forced to use children to meet exploitative contracts.
London based lawyers Leigh Day announced on Thursday that it has sent a pre-action letter to BAT on behalf of nearly 2,000 tobacco tenant farmers in Malawi, including hundreds of children, accusing the company of facilitating forced and child labour.
“British American Tobacco takes the issue of child labour extremely seriously and strongly agrees that children must never be exploited, exposed to danger or denied an education,’’
Simon Cleverly, BAT’s group head of corporate affairs, said in a statement.
“BAT business standards specifically state that we do not condone forced, bonded or involuntary labour.
“We do not condone or employ child labour, and seek to ensure that the welfare, health and safety of children are paramount at all times,” Cleverly said.
`As we have received a letter of claim relating to these allegations, it would be inappropriate for us to provide further comment at this time,’’ he added.
Leigh Day said BAT had made huge profits from tobacco farmers who were effectively forced to work for very little pay under fear, duress and false pretences.
The farmers were left with no option than to put their children to work on the farms too.
“The child farmers miss school while often working gruelling 10- to 12-hour days,” it said, adding that BAT acquires tobacco from between 20,000 to 35,000 farms in Malawi.
“While British American Tobacco amasses huge profits the farmers that do the gruelling and hazardous work of picking the tobacco leaves are paid little to nothing,’’ said Oliver Holland, an international lawyer for Leigh Day.
“On top of all this the farmers are forced to make the heart-breaking decision to put their children to work, just to ensure they can make enough money so that they are not left in debt,’’ Holland said.
A UN backed report in 2018 said child labour was very common in Malawi and affected an estimated 2.1 million children aged five to 17 years old, or 38 per cent of that age group.
The number increase despite government-led efforts to reduce it over the past two decades.
The inter-agency Understanding Children’s Work (UCW) Programme’s report on Malawi, based on research by the International Labour Organisation, UNICEF and the World Bank, said the estimates indicate clearly that efforts in this regard need to be intensified.
The report examined child labour in Malawi in the hazardous industries of tobacco, mining, quarrying and construction.
It noted that the Malawi government had spread efforts to protect tenants since 1992 and introduced a new labour law in 2012 that explicitly prohibits the employment of children under 18 years old.
“However, children are still employed in tobacco estates and enforcement is a critical issue,’’ the report said.