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Malawi: Child trafficking and forced labour push thousands to work on tobacco farms

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© ILO/Crozet, M. An eight-year-old child skips school in the Kasungu region, Malawi, to help her family in the tobacco fields.

“Despite the abolition of the tenancy system, serious concerns persist in relation to risks of trafficking of children and forced labour”, the experts said.

“Countries where tobacco companies are headquartered must strengthen action to prevent trafficking for purposes of child and forced labour”.

Working towards this end, the experts have established dialogue with some of the main tobacco industry companies in Malawi, including British American Tobacco, Imperial, Philip Morris International and Japan Tobacco Group, after human rights abuses were reported within the sector.

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Cases reported affect over 7,000 adults and 3,000 children”, the experts said.

Tucked-away children

Tobacco farms are usually located in remote areas, limiting access to assistance, defenses against labour rights abuses, and protections against people trafficking.

The isolation of the farms is also a roadblock for children to access education and schools, according to the UN experts.

In the aftermath of COVID-19, more than 400,000 pupils were reported not to have returned to school.

“A large number of children working on tobacco farms still remain out of school and have not returned to school post-pandemic”, the experts said.

They upheld that efforts being made by the Government and some tobacco companies – such as school feeding programmes and scholarships – are not sufficient.

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Invisible women

The UN experts also shone a light on the discrimination confronting women in rural areas, which have led to men being the sole heads of households – increasing women’s risks of exploitation and abuse.

“Women’s work remains invisible”, they lamented.

The experts called for strengthened monitoring, enforcement, and business accountability on an urgent basis to prevent human rights abuses and ensure that codes of conduct are effectively implemented.

Workers’ organizations, civil society and trade unions play a critically important role in protecting the rights of workers and preventing trafficking for purposes of forced and child labour, they stressed.

“Continued partnerships with and support for civil society and the national human rights commission, and ensuring civic space, will be essential”, said the UN experts, underscoring that “improved transparency, reporting and human rights due diligence in the tobacco supply chain must be guaranteed”.

About the experts

Click here for the names of the independent experts endorsing this statement.

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific country situation. The experts are not paid for their work.

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