US suspends Malawi tobacco imports after child labour allegations
The US government has suspended all imports of tobacco from Malawi over child labour allegations.
The ban follows the news that human rights lawyers are to bring a case against British American Tobacco (BAT)_in the high court in London over child labour in Malawi’s tobacco fields, as a result of revelations by the Guardian of the scale of the abuse last year. Leigh Day are acting for nearly 2,000 claimants – children and their parents – and expect that up to 15,000 will join the case.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on Friday issued a Withhold Release order on tobacco from Malawi, meaning shipments arriving in the United States will be detained at the port of entry. Importers will have to prove the tobacco is not produced with labour prohibited under US law to have the shipment released.
Customs and Border Protection said it had issued the order based on information collected by the agency that reasonably indicated the tobacco from Malawi was produced using forced labour and forced child labour. It said it collects information from a variety of sources, including the general public.
“CBP wants to ensure the business community is compliant with the law requiring clean supply chains with no use of forced labour of any kind,” said Brenda Smith, the executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s office of trade.
The CBP said importers “may offer proof that their tobacco and tobacco-containing products do not include tobacco from Malawi that was produced with labour prohibited under US law”. Experts believe this will force companies to engage with the issue on the ground in Malawi.
The big tobacco companies all say they are opposed to child labour and fund various sustainability programmes to work against it. However, the International Labour Organisation of the United Nations has said that child labour in tobacco is increasing, not reducing.
The letter of claim sent to BAT by human rights lawyers Leigh Day at the start of their fight for compensation for the families alleges that the company is responsible for the low price paid for the tobacco leaf in Malawi, which keeps tenant farmers in such poverty that they have no choice but to make their children work in the fields before and after school and at the weekend. During the harvest season, few of the farmers’ children go to school at all.
The Guardian found that families are caught in a poverty trap, moving to the tobacco farms in the hope of a lump sum for the crop at the end of the season that will allow them to set up in business and have a better life. But they live on a bag of maize a month, supplied by the landowner, and have to borrow money for school fees, any transport and other needs over the 10-month growing season. According to Leigh Day’s letter of claim, after the crop is sold, they are typically left with £100 to £200 after deductions for the money they have borrowed, which is not enough to return home.
Leigh Day’s letter of claim alleges that BAT is guilty of “unjust enrichment”, unfairly profiting from the hard labour of children and their families in Malawi without adequate compensation. If they win the case, which could last for three or four years, it is likely that the price paid for tobacco would have to rise to prevent more claimants taking legal action in the future, which would improve the quality of farmers’ lives and enable their children to get an education.
BAT says its core policies “specifically state that we do not condone forced, bonded or involuntary labour; and that 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”. It says its leaf operations and contracted suppliers are required to participate in an industry-wide sustainable tobacco programme, aligned with United Nations standards, including on child labour and income for farm workers.