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Maintaining fair labour practices the village way

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At 50, tobacco farmer Wilson Abbas has been around long enough to realise that farmers are prone to distractions such as unsatisfactory tobacco prices, pressing family needs and other demands of daily life.

But Abbas, from Mapata Village, Traditional Authority Kapoloma in Machinga District, vows that nothing— not even bad weather— would distract him from honouring his obligations when it comes to paying for labour services rendered.

“I have a half hectare piece of land which I use for tobacco cultivation and, although I do not often engage other people [in tobacco tasks such as leaf picking], I make sure that I pay them according to the country’s labour laws. I understand that the minimum wage per day’s work is K687.70 and there is no way I can offer someone wages below that figure,” Abbas says.

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Abbas, who is chairperson for Mgwirizano Club under Nselema 1 Scheme, says adherence to income and working hours’ policies established by the government ensures that wealth is properly distributed while ensuring that workers engaged in any type of work are properly remunerated.

‘If you talk to one person I often engage when I have too much work to accomplish, you will appreciate the fact that I honour my obligations. People think we, in the village, know nothing about government policies but that is a misconception. We have so many channels of accessing information these days,” Abbas says.

Mgwirizano Club chairperson, Shamim White, concurs with Abbas.

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“Ever since I joined Integrated Production System [IPS, commonly known as Contract Farming] in 2012, I have embraced principles I did not think of prior to that. We are glad that Alliance One Tobacco, which provides inputs, maize seeds and other necessities to me, maintains that I should stick to best labour practices established internationally.

“We have tobacco farmers in Machinga who do not follow good labour practices and people interested in working shun such farmers because they know that they will not get what they are worth [in terms of financial returns] for a day’s work,” White says.

While Abbas and White’s adherence to good labour practices may surprise some people, more surprises await them. The two are husband and wife, and Mgwirizano Club comprises the two of them.

However, the two tobacco farmers set family ties aside when it comes to tobacco farming, and do things differently. Abbas has a half hectare piece of land while White also has a one hectare piece of land. Nobody touches financial proceeds from the other.

“People may be surprised that we are husband and wife but we keep family ties at bay in our commercial farming endeavours. The club [Mgwirizano] has two signatories and money does not leave the club without me getting involved, in terms of pending my signature,” White says.

She adds: “In fact, I am registered [with Alliance One] as an individual separate from the chairperson [Abbas] and we send our tobacco bales under different registration numbers. When the money from tobacco comes, each one gets their share and decides what to do with it without interference from the other.”

On his part, Abbas says, as head of the family, he has no problem with the arrangement. He says business and personal issues should be treated separately.

“In fact, I am not the one who brought that idea. I had no influence on that. This means if she incurs debts, settling them is her own responsibility and I cannot be dragged into such issues. The same applies to her. I think it is high time Malawians realised that personal and business issues are like night and day— they should not be combined,” Abbas says.

Another Machinga farmer, Ellina Tailosi of Mitomoni Village, T/A Nyambi, says farmers should start to apply fair practices in the field before pin-pointing injustices others perpetuate against farmers themselves.

“I have been a tobacco farmer for many years and did not think deeply about issues such as offering income that reflects work done. Although I mostly do the farming with family members, I have made it a point since I started practicing contract farming four years ago to pay fairly whenever I engage others.

“I think it is due to fair dealing with others that I have been able to send three of my children to driving schools, after which they got driver’s licences,” Tailosi, a mother of five, says.

From the look of things, it is not only farmers from Machinga who have become ‘good employers’. In Mangochi District, Fredrick Moyo from Mtalika Village, T/A Nankumba, says he has been honouring his obligations whenever he engages others in tobacco cultivation work.

“Since 2009, when I joined Contract Farming under Alliance One, I have been paying those I engage in time, basing on the minimum wage set by the government. More importantly, I have been providing all the resources. In the past, tobacco farmers used to engage tenants [sub-contracted farmers], give them food and financial resources for their sustenance, only to make deductions from their financial proceeds after sales. I do not do that. I provide these resources for free because these people want to eat, fend for themselves, pay school fees for their children while the tobacco crop is still in the field,” Moyo says.

International standards

According to Alliance One Tobacco (Malawi) Corporate Affairs Manager, Fran Malila, farmers are educated on issues dealing with acceptable Agricultural Labour Practices (ALP) as one way of “ensuring there are no child employment practices and other labour abuses in tobacco farms where we source our tobacco”.

“All Alliance One contracted growers are sensitised on ALP issues and are invited for training by the leaf technicians. All farmers are contractually obligated to comply with all of the seven principles through contracts signed at the beginning of each season. Through the IPS system and the ALP programmes, Alliance One is better able to reach and educate its contracted growers on the importance of ALP compliance.

“Our approach is to improve conditions for farmers and workers through direct interaction with contracted farmers by leaf technicians and area field administrators, training on ALP codes to encourage farmers to comply with labour codes, following up on reported incidences, remedial actions whenever non-compliance is observed [as well as conducting] sensitization meetings with community leaders and members,” Malila says.

According to an Agricultural Labour Practices (ALP) Programme Progress Report issued in September 2012, by Philip Morris International (PMI) — one of the international tobacco buying companies— ALP implementation is compulsory in tobacco-producing countries.

The ALP Code establishes principles and standards in seven focus areas, namely child labour, income and work hours, fair treatment, forced labour, safe work environment, freedom of association and compliance with the law.

“In May 2011, PMI launched a comprehensive ALP Programme to progressively eliminate child labour and other labour abuses on all farms from which PMI sources tobacco…. The implementation of the ALP Code is compulsory for more than 500,000 farmers in over 30 countries who have contractual arrangements directly with PMI affiliates or with third-party leaf suppliers who buy tobacco for PMI.

“Our preferred approach is to work with farmers so that they can improve their practices. However, if there is no clear commitment to take corrective actions or if there is a persistent lack of improvement, we (or our supplier) will terminate our relationship with the farmer,” the report reads in part.

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