Thousands of impoverished tobacco tenants, wives and children working in small-scale tobacco farms in Malawi have filed a claim against British American Tobacco (BAT) and Imperial Brands at the High Court in London.
They allege that the tobacco companies are liable in negligence and have been unjustly enriched.
The growers, who are being represented by Leigh Day solicitors, claim that the companies’ actions, for the sake of maximising profits, have resulted in the systemic exploitation of poor and illiterate workers, trafficked from the south of Malawi to tobacco farms in the central and northern regions.
BAT registered a pre-tax profit of more than £8.3 billion in 2019 while Imperial plc’s pre-tax profit was more than £1.6 billion.
In a statement posted on its website, Leigh Day solicitors says Malawi tobacco farmers accuse BAT and Imperial of knowingly facilitating unlawful and dangerous conditions, in which the farmers and their children have to build their own homes foraged from mud and thatch, live on a daily small portion of maize, work from 6am to midnight seven days a week, and have to borrow money to be able to feed their families throughout the season.
The statement says tobacco farmers are only paid after harvest, but only after their farming costs and loans have been deducted from their minimal wages, adding that they can be left in a vicious circle of indebtedness.
Leigh Day says, on occasions, it has been known for farmers to end up selling their daughters to clear debt.
“The farmers’ pitiful pay is also a result of the way the tobacco industry in Malawi works to keep the real price of tobacco below the country’s minimum government pricing, meaning that the price paid for tobacco is some of the lowest in the world at less than $2 dollars per kilogramme,” the statement says.
The case was issued in the High Court on Friday, December 18. BAT and Imperial are also accused of creating industry-wide schemes which claim to prevent child labour, forced labour and dangerous working practices, but which are only really whitewashing the true situation.
“The tenant farmers’ agreement to grow tobacco is frequently procured by the use of illegitimate economic pressure, violence or threats of violence,” it is claims.
“For the entirety of the tobacco growing season from September to July, the farmers and their children work extremely long hours in extremely hazardous working conditions, with a high risk of personal injury; to live in insanitary and degrading living conditions and to endure grave food insecurity,” Leigh Day says.
It adds that the growers are subjected to hazardous and unsafe working conditions and exposed to high levels of toxic pesticides and fertilisers without proper protective measures.
The two partners from Leigh Day representing the claimants are Martyn Day and Oliver Holland.
Holland said their clients are living in terrible and unsanitary conditions on tobacco farms in Malawi, toiling for many months in the hope they will be paid at the end of the season but often receiving nothing at all whilst the tobacco companies are making huge profits from the tobacco grown on these farms.
“This is a classic example of modern-day slavery where multinational companies are exploiting those in the developing world in conditions that are tantamount to slave labour. Our clients have filed their claim in the High Court in London today in the hope they will receive some justice,” Holland said.
On his part, Martyn Day said it was entirely depressing that, in 2020, two of Britain’s largest multi nationals were profiting from the use of child labour.
“Selling cigarettes and other tobacco products is enough of a curse on society but to do so on the back of the work of children is truly shocking,” Day said.
Tobacco Association of Malawi Trust Chief Executive Officer Nixon Lita referred the matter to Tobacco Commission when contacted for comment on Monday.
TC acting Chief Executive Officer Alexander Bulirani asked for more time before he could comment on the matter.