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Child labor that kills

Appeared in Neon, March 2011

Von Autor Markus Wanzeck

Tens of thousands of children in Malawi work harvesting and processing tobacco. Skin contact with the leaves makes them ill. But they have no other option. Malawi is a nicotine addict.

Somewhere near Malawi’s western border, a wall of six-foot tobacco plants stands motionless against a heavy gray sky. The nearest village is hours away. The thick air refuses to budge. The only sound is coughing. It slowly draws nearer until a group of workers emerges from between two rows of plants. The farm laborer with a hacking cough is named Emanuel. He is five years old. He sags under the weight of a thick bundle of tobacco – the “Burley” variety – balanced on his shoulders and neck. His expression is one of mute, large-eyed sorrow. Still, he responds with pride to an inquiry about his working hours. “I work whenever my dad needs help,” he says. Emanuel’s father is thirty and powerfully built, but his hands shake. It is mid-March. Both the rainy season and the harvest will soon be over, and as the fields empty, the auction floors fill up. In 2010, around two hundred thousand tons of tobacco leaf will be exported, Malawi’s Tobacco Control Commission says. Half the jobs in Malawi and sixty-five percent of its export volume are dependent on tobacco, according to government sources – more than any other country. Around half a billion dollars a year is funneled into Malawi through a vast logistical complex on the outskirts of its capital Lilongwe. Martin Otañez of the University of Colorado in Denver is fairly sure that the country’s reliance on tobacco is not a good thing. He has been studying Malawi’s economy since 1998. The country has tried to build prosperity on a basis of tobacco cultivation for over a century. But its negotiating position has never been strong. “The tobacco companies and the political class keep quiet about the hidden social and ecological costs,” he explains. “From deforestation to pesticides that destroy people’s health. Not to mention child labor.” Every farmer needs help in the fields. But no one can afford to pay for it. “So the children serve as slaves,” Jos Kuppens says. He is a Catholic priest whose missionary order, the White Fathers, runs the Centre for Social Concern in Lilongwe. “They are exploited. Their living standards are deliberately held to a minimum.” Wednesday morning, shortly before seven o’clock. It rained during the night, but the loose red earth has absorbed most of the damp. Emanuel and his seven-year-old brother Peter squat in a tobacco shed made of branches and straw. They sew tobacco leaves into bundles using stalks of grass and add them to the bundles already hanging in long rows over their heads to dry. Emanuel and Peter are both enrolled in first grade at Lameck School, two miles away. Peter’s attendance is too sporadic to allow a promotion to second grade. Emanuel says they start helping out the minute they get home. The two hours between sunrise and the beginning of school are also a good time to work, he claims. And if you don’t finish what you’re doing, you can always skip school. But education has already broadened their horizons and raised career hopes: Both boys want to be schoolteachers. Every year, the landlord assigns the family – Ralph and Ticia Chavula and their three sons – a field to work. At its edge stands a thatched-roof house made of bricks, so low and small that it appears to have been built for a large dog. But it is high enough for an adult to stand up in, and wide enough for an adult to lie down flat. The season begins in September with the planting of tobacco seed in beds by the river. When the rains begin, the seedlings are dug out by hand and transplanted to the field. There they require constant attention. Weeding, hoeing, fertilizer, pesticides. Each plant must be kept free of buds and side shoots. The harvest lasts from February to April. Leaves are plucked individually as they “ripen,” then hung up to cure after being sorted and woven into sheaves. Then they are taken down again, graded for sale, and packed into linen bales. The works lasts from sunup to sundown every day from September until sometime between mid-May and mid-June when the last wilted leaf is off the last plant. “Nobody does this for fun,” Ralph Chavula remarks. He is breathing hard, on his back another towering bundle of fresh, moist leaves. He throws it down for Peter and Emanuel to prepare for curing. He began working for his own father when he was eight. Since then, tobacco has been the ruling motif of his life. “We all started working as kids,” he says, “and I need my kids to help me. There’s no other way.” Tobacco needs Peter and Emanuel, and Peter and Emanuel need tobacco. A better life would require a different childhood. But the system of debt peonage is a well-oiled machine. The Chavulas spend months working for buckets of cornmeal and sacks of fertilizer. When the harvest is over, they get their pay in cash, assuming they have not consumed more cornmeal and fertilizer than initially foreseen, and if the landlord feels like paying. Contracts are never written down. Another family a few miles down the road, the Msadalas, admit they have no assurances, oral or otherwise, that they will be paid at all. “The landlord doesn’t want to talk about it,” Matthew Msadala says. He refuses to bring up the topic of pay and risk the livelihoods of himself, his wife, the three sons they have together, and his fifteen-year-old stepson Bentry. “Our neighbors complained about their landlord and had to leave,” Valentina Msadala adds. “Without notice, and without pay.” Like Ralph Chavula, Matthew Msadala employs his children in the fields. He says it would be better for them to be in school, and they agree. Bentry claims proudly that he goes to school every day, then admits it may only be every other day. A little later on, he displays his notebooks – six slim gray-brown pamphlets bound with staples. One subject is “Life Competencies.” The last entry is over two months old. Outside under the manioc tree that shades the entrance to the family’s brick hut, Matthew Msadala talks about business fundamentals. Last year the family harvested eight hundred kilos of Burley tobacco. The landlord gave him twenty-five thousand Kwacha after deducting his outlay for cornmeal and fertilizer – around thirty-one Kwacha per kilo, twenty-two U.S. cents. The average price in an auction hall in Lilongwe for a kilogram of tobacco in 2009 was a dollar seventy-nine – eight times what Msadala got. And Malawi’s auction halls are near the bottom of the supply chain. The serious money is made overseas. Complicating matters still more is the market power enjoyed by two dealers operating globally, Universal and Alliance One International. In 2009 the two bought up sixty-three percent of the Burley harvest and eighty-six percent of Malawi’s Virginia tobacco. In September, 2009, President Mutharika made a speech calling their price dumping practices “hostile” and asking God’s blessing for Malawi before throwing four foreign tobacco buyers out of the country. The Chavulas missed the speech. They just keep working. Their landlord has promised them thirty-six thousand Kwacha, around two hundred dollars. “But it’s up to him,” Ticia admits. Emanuel and Peter’s baby brother, aged one, is tied to her back with a cloth. He is the only family member who regularly eats breakfast, a cup of cornmeal mush. The others are waiting expectantly for lunch: “nsima” dumplings, also made of cornmeal, today with a handful of okra. Ralph sighs and says that he looks forward to eating meat on payday. The younger Chuvulas’ educational ambitions recently suffered a setback. “It happened last week,” Emanuel begins the story, then starts to cry. Their teacher, Madame Aphunzitsi, sent Peter home for appearing in school without his uniform. Ticia explains that it was in tatters. Peter says he had hoped the school would make an exception. But Madame Aphunsitzi could not be moved: No uniform, no school. Peter reacted by lying in wait for Emanuel and ripping his still relatively pristine turquoise-blue shirt to shreds. Now they have more time for work. Emanuel says he often feels unwell. He has headaches. Such complaints are common among the children of tobacco farmers, from Mchinji to Kasungu in the north to the hills around Lilongwe. Pesticides are ubiquitous, and no one has protective clothing. Childhood compounds the problem. Nicotine is a natural nerve poison. During a harvest in cool, fair weather, a worker’s skin absorbs nicotine from the leaves at the rate of about one cigarette per day, scientists say – but the absorption rate of the soluble alkaloid shoots upward when it gets wet. Sweaty palms are bad. So are rainy days. A wet shirt can function as a giant nicotine patch. Sarah Kahnert of the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg describes the risks. “An overdose leads to an acute poisoning syndrome, ‘green tobacco sickness.” She counts off its symptoms: headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness. In 2009, the children’s aid organization Plan International put together a report based on nearly fifty interviews with children working on tobacco estates in Malawi. Many described such symptoms. Not one had been warned that nicotine is dangerous. Yet children are particularly vulnerable. “It’s not just their lower body weight,” Kahnert explains. “A child can die from eating a single cigarette. An adult would have to eat fifty.” Accordingly, Malawian politicians and companies buying tobacco in Malawi have joined in stern public condemnations of child labor. “Their hands are clean,” Laura Graen of the Unfair Tobacco campaign says. “The only thing that’s changed is that now the farmers feel guilty.” After months of fieldwork, she came to the reluctant conclusion that the tenant farmers would go under without their children’s help. The tenant farmers have a union. Its general secretary, Raphael Sandramu, is a living symbol of helplessness. Aged fifty-five, he has spent nearly twenty years in futile struggle on behalf of TOTAWUM, the Tobacco Tenants and Allied Workers Union of Malawi. “There is no political will to improve farming conditions,” he sums up. In the mid-1990s, he worked with government representatives to draft a law regulating tenant farming. It would have limited child labor and guaranteed farmers written contracts and clean drinking water. “It’s gathered a lot of dust since then,” he says. He carries the bill with him everywhere he goes, neatly bound in a black briefcase. In parliament, the bill never made it to committee. Many politicians own tobacco estates, Sandramu adds darkly. Father Kuppens locates the forces that put five-year-olds to work in fields of nicotine elsewhere. The “countries of the north,” he says, send poverty-stricken nations like Malawi less development aid than they take in with cigarette taxes. The Malawi Tobacco Control Commission’s report places the nation’s main customers in Belgium, the USA, and Germany – including major players like Reemstma, Philip Morris, and British American Tobacco, along with Pöschl, the world’s leading producer of snuff. Tobacco industry expert Otañez likewise sees Malawi’s politicians as cogs in a machine. “Many people profit from exploitation and child labor – landlords, middlemen, and a few politicians as well.” But most of the money goes to multinationals, which blur their responsibility by outsourcing production. Companies like Philip Morris, Japan Tobacco or Reemstma’s parent Imperial Tobacco simply go shopping on a free market. And what do they find for sale? “Depends on the quality of the harvest and current price levels,” a Reemstma spokesperson said, adding that “it can be hard these days to know where the product is coming from.” Sandramu, the union leader, hesitates to give credence to such statements. He respects the economic and political power of his opponents enough to wonder at their professed inability to know much of anything about the tobacco they buy. But his main concerns are more direct and pressing. “TOTAWUM nominally has twenty-three thousand members, but at least half of them can’t afford to pay dues” – around a dollar a year. His ability to organize or travel to remote plantations to advocate for his members depends on having cash on hand to buy gas for his motorbike. “Nobody takes us seriously,” he says. Landlords have threatened him with machetes, held a rifle to his chest, and booby-trapped the road so his motorcycle flipped. His hands and forearms are covered with scars. These days landlords are not the only skeptics. The farmers themselves, NGOS, and even the government are running scared. The reason is a study calling attention to the child and slave labor that goes into Malawian tobacco that was published in late 2009 by the U.S. Department of Labor. There was talk of an international boycott, and it became difficult to find tobacco farmers in Malawi who were willing to talk. Only off the record, anonymously, with no clues as to their location – all the names in this article, for example, have been changed. Plan International, which had caused such an uproar with its report on child labor in Malawi, now actively discourages the media from getting involved. “We have a strong interest in working constructively with the Malawian government,” Mcdonald Mumba says, children’s rights adviser at Plan in Lilongwe. I learned after the fact that the government takes journalists seriously: A letter from Malawi’s Ministry of Labor to its Ministry for Internal Affairs, dated just before my trip, described my travel plans and contacts in detail. Paranoia may be inevitable in such a tobacco-dependent nation. Addicts tend to get irritable, and the idea of cold turkey – an international boycott of Malawi’s tobacco production – makes Malawians’ blood run cold, even those who suffer most. Ralph Chavula’s response is a question: “What are we supposed to eat?” He glances at Emanuel and Peter, both busy sewing and hanging bundles of tobacco leaves. Peter has a question, too. “When are we getting new school uniforms?” “After we sell the tobacco,” his father replies. But Peter doesn’t even look up to hear it. He seems to have known what answer was coming. “You can’t call what we do here living,” their mother adds. “We just survive.” The union man Sandramu knows such scenes all too well. “They all think next year will be better. That’s what keeps them going.” Vain hopes are his stock in trade. Yunus Mussa, minister of labor, has solemnly promised him that this year his draft bill for a law protecting tenant farmers will be put to a vote. And if it isn’t? Sandramu shrugs his shoulders, then tells a story about how once he was walking past a landlord’s house once when the man beckoned to him with a bundle of banknotes. Sandramu came closer. “You’re from the union, right? You must need money.” The landlord threw a few coins on the ground. “Here, buy yourself a Fanta.” Sandramu picked them up, said thank you, and walked on.