Tobacco being prepared in Malawi | Photo re-used under creative commons / khym54 (Flickr)

Finding a solution to the exploitation of tobacco tenants in Malawi

By Kelvin Tembo

Tobacco production provides employment to a cross section of Malawians and contributes to over 70 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.

But despite Malawi’s dependence on tobacco, tenants who are at the center of production are often exposed to inhumane working conditions thereby locking them into the general systems of poverty and debt.

Labor recruiters for Malawian tobacco estates entice laborers to plantations with promises of different benefits including food allowances and access to materials needed to grow tobacco. Most of these promises, however, are often left unfulfilled by both recruiters and the employers of labor.

The situation has not gone unnoticed by government leaders and NGOs such that over the years efforts have been made to address the social and economic injustices facing tenants.

A visit to Mpherembe, the tobacco production hub located in the Malawi’s Northern Region District of Mzimba, reveals that little or no progress has been made so far in improving the welfare of tenants.

“Since the year 2000, I have been working as a tobacco tenant moving from one estate to another in the course of the 17-year period with the aim of improving the financial side of my life,” Wyson Chonga, told RuralReporters in an interview.

“Year in year out, from August to around June I am subjected to a very intensive kind of labor involved in tobacco production but what I get at the end does not match the work that I do. I have been given two acres of land where I am able to produce about nine bales of tobacco which earns my landlord millions but all I get is MK200, 000 (about US$272), which is too little for me to do any meaningful development to improve my life,” Chonga complained.

Aside from the poor remuneration, tobacco tenants are subjected to poor living conditions.

“Whether you live alone or you have a family, in every 12 days we are given one pail [sic] of maize the cost of which is deducted at the end of the year when receiving our pay and if your ration is finished before the collapse of the set days it is either you have to sleep on an empty stomach or ask for additional ration at an exorbitant cost,” M’balaka Ali, who has been in tenancy labor for over 10 years said.

He added, “The additional ration is very expensive as the price is double the price of maize at the market, but we are forced to get it since we are not capable of buying at the market because we do not have money in our pockets as we only get paid at the end of the production season.”

Maize is the only basic necessity the tenants claim they receive from their landlords. They have to find ways of acquiring other necessities despite not having other alternative income generating activities.

“Our bosses we work for them just because of poverty and instead of us benefiting we are only enriching them and our poverty is worsening,” Another tenant only identified himself as Mayeso said. “They don’t give us basic needs like soap, salt and relish and we have to do piece work for us to find those needs resulting in us working as slaves. If you don’t want piece work, then you have to enter into debt with your boss at a 100 percent payback interest rate.”

“The way we work we get paid at the end of the production season and our struggle to fend for our basic needs results in us failing to send our children to school because we cannot afford to buy them school uniforms and other learning materials,” Mayeso said.

Despite tobacco production being associated with both short and long-term effects on human health, workers I encountered working in their fields had no protective gears exposing their lives to health problems like Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS).

While acknowledging the existence of the challenges tobacco tenants face, one of the farm owners, a Farm Manager at KK farms Brown Lupafya, said as farm-owners they are trying their best in ensuring that the welfare of tenants is improved regarding wages and provision of essential amenities. But their efforts are being limited by low tobacco prices in the market as well as the untrustworthiness of the tenants.

“At our farm as I am saying we are now giving our tenants all the necessities at the same time we are thinking of opening a day care school so that children of our tenants have easy access to school and also we are planning to be paying our tenants half of their money half way through the season,” Lupafya said.

“But our biggest problem right now is the prices of tobacco offered at the market. Even us we are no longer benefiting, and the only reason we are still clinging to tobacco farming is that we are used to it,” he said.

“Besides that, as much as we are trying to improve the welfare of our tenants, some tenants are letting us down. For example, most of these tenants are drunkards, and if for example, you give them necessities they return in no time demanding to be given extra because they have sold the ones we gave them and use the money to buy beers,” Lupafya said.

Bent on improving the welfare of tobacco tenants since 1994, some NGOs have been advocating for the cause through the promotion of the enactment of the Tobacco tenancy Labor Bill, which has been considered to be hope for ending the exploitation of tenants. However, the closest the Bill was to be tabled in Parliament was in 2012 when it was presented to the cabinet but was sent back for review and since then nothing has materialized.

Currently, government officials have devised a new strategy for dealing with exploitation in tobacco estates, which is changing the tenancy system to waged employment system through the Employment Act.

“We want to abolish tenancy labor, and we want all tenants to be employed and put on the monthly wage bill,” said Henry Mussa, Minister of Labor, Youth, Sports, and Manpower Development . “This is the right way to show our anger as government on the exploitation of tenants and also show our commitment [to] improving the welfare of tenants.”

But the initiative has not been without resistance from both the employers and tenants.

“Since we took this stand and before we have even tabled the Act in Parliament there is already resistance from landlords who claim they do not have capital to permanently employ the workers as well as tenants themselves who fear they might lose their jobs. We did our first consultations where there was this resistance, but we will go back and try to convince them that this is the right way to go, we are tired of exploitation,” Mussa said.

While commending the government for their stand to ban tenancy labor, Raphael Sandramu, General Secretary for the Tobacco and Allied Workers Union of Malawi (TOAWUM) said he is not yet convinced about the move.

Sandramu said, “Our sole aim is to promote the welfare of tenants. Our stand on the matter is 50-50, it is a good decision to have tenants permanently employed and put on a monthly wage bill but our worry is that landlords will not be able to employ all tenants as such those who will not be employed will suffer.”

“At the moment we are not in total support of the Employment Act unless it incorporates all the contents that were in the Tobacco Tenancy Labor Bill draft. The Employment Act does not spell out what will happen to tenants who will be left out of permanent employment; we can only accept the Act if those left out will be given land and capital because what we want is for tenants not to be left stranded and suffer,” Sandramu said.

He continued, “We have already communicated to government about incorporating all clauses of the Tobacco Tenancy Labor Bill draft into the Employment Act, but we have not yet heard anything about our demand.”

Centre for Social Concern (CFSC) an organization that has been in the forefront advocating for the improvement of tenants welfare is pleased with the decision to introduce waged employment system for workers in tobacco estates.

Lucky Mfungwe, CFSC Economic Governance Programmes Officer, said, “A decision was made during a high-profile meeting graced by the Ministry of Labor to change the tenancy system to the waged employment system, and the tenants were part of the decision, and we are waiting for the Ministry for next steps. This was an important meeting for mapping the way forward, but there has been the time lag between what was agreed during the stakeholders meeting to implementation by Ministry of Labor.”

“We are pleased as a CFSC to note that our advocacy campaign has reached a wage system thus (tenants being employees) as opposed to seasonal earnings which they never realized or accumulated vicious cycle of debt to the landlords,” Mfungwe said.

Mfungwe is the view that a total improvement of tenants’ welfare is needed.

“Stakeholders should seriously look into revising the minimum wage and impose monthly or weekly payments of the tenants; this will have a significant impact on the economy because only capital intensive farmers will venture into tobacco growing. This will reduce the oversupply of the crop thus high prices on the market for more forex generation,” Mfungwe said.

He added, “Tenants should have access to land for their household production and food security as the recent study results have shown that at least 90% of the tenants are food insecure.  As such The Landlords should deliberately apportion land on the tenants to cultivate their crops. This creates a win-win situation between the landlord and the tenants as the landlord will reduce the cost of feeding the tenants.”

Mfungwe further urged the government to strengthen the monitoring system on the welfare of tenants noting that inefficient monitoring systems have aided the continued exploitation of tenants due to limited resources allocated to Ministry of labor such that issues of labor exploitation have not been a priority in the country.

I am Kelvin Tembo, a 29-year-old male independent professional journalist from Malawi. I am a holder of a Certificate in Journalism obtained in 2010 from the Malawi Institute of Journalism. I have also had special media training on covering infectious diseases by the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) in collaboration with Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA), Climate Change and Development Training by the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), etc. I have been in the media industry since December 2011 covering health, environment, human rights, agriculture, politics and development. My work has also been featured on, and an online fashion magazine I like reporting on rural livelihoods and events. I believe in journalism being a ‘calling’ to serve the interests of the voiceless. Connect on Twitter: @kelvinvitima

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