- Tobacco contributes 70 percent of Malawi's foreign exchange earnings. However, a report on the 'Living and Working Conditions of Tobacco Tenants and Other Workers' has revealed that this benefit to the nation rides on the back of horrific living conditions experienced by estate tenants. The report reveals child labour and sexual harassment.
Women largely bear the brunt of these violations and indignities, and the report says they are subjected to various abuses ranging from mental, sexual and physical abuses from landlords or supervisors.
- The majority of [the tenants] are reported to have been physically assaulted by their own husbands, supervisors and even the landlords themselves, says the report compiled by the Centre for Social Concern, a project of the Missionaries of Africa, the so-called 'White fathers'. "They also admitted to having been forced into sexual acts with their supervisors in either exchange for food or some money or favours from their bosses," the report continues.
The report was launched in Malawi's capital Lilongwe on Thursday. It adds: "Others reported to have been sexually harassed and even raped by their masters."
The general consensus, according to the report, is that child labour is prevalent in Malawi's tobacco estates, as the study, "established and verified that children spend all their time with the parents helping with tobacco production."
- Only the children under five are spared. In some instances, even some under-fives reported to having done some work related to tobacco production, said the report continuing: "Children above nine years are heavily involved in tasks like clearing fields, making nursery beds and watering nurseries and transporting tobacco."
As regards remuneration, the report says, the estate workers and tobacco tenants in particular are given credit in return for their labour. Food rations are also received on credit and even money is borrowed from the landlords or other sources on the estates. In case of illness like recurring malaria, they are given a half tablet of paracetamol (Panado) as medication.
Out of 785 tobacco workers interviewed in the report, 55.5 percent admitted to have received agricultural inputs, farm implements and foodstuffs on credit from landlords while 36.1 percent declined to having received anything from the landlord.
In an interview with 'The Chronicle', the architects of the report, Father Jos Kuppens and the Director and Economist, Hastings Kafundu, said: "There should be a law to which tenants can refer to and say 'this is my right'."
- There should be written contracts between the landlord and the tenants, emphasised Mr Kuppens. He said the report mainly focussed on the plight of the tenants as they are the worst disadvantaged. "As a church group, we always look at the options for the poor." He also indicated that poor pricing on the auction floors generally influences the conditions of the tenants on the farms.
According to the Secretary General for Tenants and Allied Worker Union of Malawi (TOTAWUM), Raphael Sandram, one tenant was poisoned by his landlord because of the quality of the leaf he had grown. "The man, at the moment, is admitted at Mzuzu Hospital" in northern Malawi, he said. Mr Sandram admitted that some tenants also steal from their landlords because of a lack of money and the extreme poverty they are exposed to.
The report has therefore recommended that the draft Tenancy Labour Bill of 1995 prepared by the Ministry of Labour be tabled in the next sitting of Parliament. The bill stipulates that written contracts be entered into between the tenants and landlords covering things like transportation of tenants, food provision and accommodation and fair loan payments.
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