Tobacco on trial over ‘modern slavery’ claims

Cigarettes. Stock photo
Cigarettes. Stock photo

Few smokers think twice about the source of their cigarettes.

But human rights lawyers say tobacco is farmed by some of the world’s most vulnerable children.

Children on tobacco fields in Malawi will have spent months ploughing dry land by the time December rainfall arrives.

Many skip school, working from sunrise until after dark.

As harvest time approaches and farms need extra hands, classrooms empty out.

At the end of the season, their families will receive little, if any, pay for their hard labour.

The vicious cycle is part of a supply chain that has enriched the likes of British American Tobacco (BAT), the world’s largest cigarette maker, which sources tobacco from thousands of small farms in the landlocked country.

But now the FTSE 100 giant is facing a lawsuit for doing business with farms that put children as young as five to work.

Tabled by human rights lawyers at Leigh Day, the case will pit some of the world’s poorest — many of whom have not been paid all year — against a corporate machine.

The landmark case follows history between the two sides.

Leigh Day’s Martyn Day brought an unsuccessful claim against cigarette companies in the 1990s, and at the time pledged not to pursue the industry in future.

In exchange the defendants’ legal costs were waived.

Leigh Day says the time limit for that agreement has expired.

BAT is expected to fight the claims in court.

“The company’s position seems to be that it hasn’t done anything wrong and that it has done all it can to stop child labour,” a source close to the matter said.

Activists dispute this, saying that for years tobacco companies like BAT have exploited vulnerable workers and children to maximise profits.

“Children regularly miss a term or two of school to work,” one campaigner said.

“Most parents have not been to school themselves.”

The issues are systemic in a society trapped by poverty and a controversial tenancy system, where landowners recruit migrant farmers to grow tobacco on their estates in exchange for food, accommodation and a cut of the earnings.

Tenants are routinely forced to enlist the help of children to meet the terms of demanding contracts, Dr Violet Odala, of the African Child Policy Forum, said.

“This repressive system is a form of modern-day slavery.

“The trafficking of children for labour is also becoming prevalent, with minors coerced from different parts of the country to work on farms,” she said.

The problem is not unique to Malawi.

Human Rights Watch senior researcher Margaret Wurth said: “We know that children are working on tobacco farms all over the world.

“If a high court rules that BAT is responsible for the wages and conditions in their global supply chain, it will be forced to adopt higher standards and hopefully others will follow suit.”

BAT buys about 2,950 tons of tobacco from Malawi each season.

The company’s head of corporate affairs, Simon Cleverly, said: “We take the issue of child labour extremely seriously.

“The international leaf dealers we purchase from are required to adhere to our supplier code of conduct, which makes it clear that child labour, and forced and bonded labour, will not be tolerated.

The company also runs a corporate social responsibility scheme, through which it says it enforces programmes to prevent child labour.

But University of Colorado anthropology professor Marty Otanez said the policies failed to address an exploitive system, where low prices paid to farmers made child labour unavoidable.

“Their schemes are simply low-cost gestures to deflect from the inherent unfairness in a system that relies on cheap labour and exploitive contracts,” Otanez said. The Telegraph