Although the tobacco industry can be profitable in the west, it creates more suffering in the tobacco plantations in Malawi. Smoking does not just kill the smoker, but it also kills the people making the cigarettes. Picking the leaves, putting them together, and putting them on sticks to dry may be a process that is deadlier than anyone could imagine.
Eighty-thousand children are enslaved, dignities lost, and futures destroyed because the probability of them leaving the plantation when they are older is slim. The majority of these children are from ages nine to fourteen. The earnings are too small to do without child labor. Once trapped in this tedious work, imprisoned in misery, they have no way of getting out. While they work in the fields, they become intoxicated just from touching the leaves. Approximately fifty cigarettes per day are absorbed through the skin from picking the leaves. The children get a disease called green tobacco nicotine poisoning, which make them sick and they sometimes will miss school. This causes dizziness, nausea, headaches, muscular weakness, and much more. The pesticides and fertilizers cause neurological problems and are so harmful that most are prohibited for sale in Europe. After the leaves are dried, workers, women and children, shut themselves in warehouses with little to no ventilation for hours a day. The air is hard to breath but they still pick through heaping piles of leaves determining which ones to package for auctions.
The head counts fluctuate in school according to the seasons. Most miss class and do not make any type of progress. Although primary school is free, to have the children absent from the field or leaving the crops is also a loss. Sometimes they do not have enough food, enduring malnutrition, going to school on empty stomachs, along with being sick from working in the tobacco field that same morning. Malawi had ratified several international conventions and the president had promised to apply the legislation forbidding child labor, but nothing has been done in the fields.
One bag of fertilizer is about $15, which would be a small fortune for a small farmer. Big farmers are usually part of the landlords’ local élite, who take advantage of their tenants’ instability. People that do not own land but work for landlords are lucky to get $40 to $100 per year. The tobacco plantations in Malawi are unable to support a small family.
Tenants live in horrible conditions. Entire families including grandparents live under one small roof with no water or electricity. It is common that landlords scam them when buying tobacco due to no regulations. On the plantation sexual abuse and human trafficking are common as well. Kidnapping occurs at night to force people to work on the plantation. Authorities see people making children work but see it as normal due to the lack of regulations or penalties. Authorities cannot do anything because in Malawi, tobacco plantations are needed for the economy.
The goal is to make enough money for food because the mass of workers are highly impoverished. In Malawi, the tobacco culture is part of the country’s development. Around 60 percent of exports are represented by the green-gold culture in which the country must rely on. The British American and Phillip Morris tobacco leaders take advantage of the dependency of the plantation workers by loaning money to peasants for fertilizers and pesticides which encourage them to grow tobacco. After the productions and the loans are paid back the growers may only make about $200 per year. The economy in which the Malawi tobacco plantations are run is much too important and the child labor is not an interest to the government.
By Brittany Varner-Miller