Sickly and malnourished, Kirana Kapito began his working life on a large commercial tobacco estate in Malawi's northern region. Such farms sell their produce on the country's auction floors directly to international corporations, including Limbe Leaf Tobacco (majority-owned by the Swiss-registered Continental Tobacco Company), and US-based Alliance One Tobacco.
Kapito is one of 250 million children across the world involved in work that is damaging to their mental, physical and emotional development. Some 57 million of these endangered children live in Sub-Saharan Africa.
And, with an estimated 1.4 million child labourers, the small, southern African nation of Malawi has the highest incidence of child labour in southern Africa, according to the Norway-based FAFO Institute for Applied Social Science.
Commercial production of tobacco in Malawi goes back as far as 1889, when settlers from the US introduced the crop. In those days "foreign masters" forced the native people and their children to work in the farms for little or no pay.
Over a century later, this exploitation continues — with no end in sight.
Increasingly, critics are demanding that the tobacco companies take responsibility for ending the abuses. Given their key role in Malawi's economy, these wield significant clout.
Malawi derives up to 70% of its foreign exchange earnings from agricultural crops, and the tobacco industry makes up 10% of the country's gross domestic product. Malawi's exports account for 5% of the world's total tobacco exports and 2% of the world's total production.
But the wealth generated by this resource is not spread evenly across the country. The Malawi Tobacco Control Commission (TCC), a local government watchdog for the tobacco market, estimates that it takes US$1 for farm workers to produce a kilogram of tobacco, which they usually sell at US$0.70 for a loss of $0.30 per kilo.
Hardworking farmers who cannot make a living turn to child labour. TCC's 2008 campaign is demanding that farmers get a profit at least 15% above production costs.
Up to 2 million Malawians, mostly poor, depend on tobacco and related industries for their income. Virtually all of the up to 900,000 adult growers are "smallholder farmers, tobacco tenants and casual farm workers", according to a 2006 research paper by the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education (CTCRE), an independent centre based at the University of California.
Tenant farmers are allocated a plot of land by the estate owner and required to produce a specific yield. The owners loan the tenants inputs, including seed and fertiliser, and deduct the debt from future profits — if any.
The owners are also supposed to supply food rations, but when monthly allocations run out, workers and their children go hungry. Many also lack such basic necessities as medication, proper housing and safe drinking water.
Not surprisingly, workers on tobacco estates and their dependants are among the poorest and most oppressed people in Malawi, according to a survey released last December by the Center for Social Concern, a Catholic organisation that monitors people's welfare.
A minimum of "78,000 children are working on a full- or part-time basis in the tobacco fields", according to the CTCRE study. "Forty-five percent of the child workers are 10-14 years old."
Meanwhile, the tobacco companies have received nearly $40 million in revenues over four years through the use of unpaid child labour in Malawi.
In 1995, the Malawi government started drafting a Tobacco Tenancy Labor Bill to regulate the relations and transactions between the tenant farmers and the landlords.
The bill has been taken through a number of revisions, but it has not yet been taken to parliament.
Multinational tobacco companies are aware of the public relations implications of profiting not only from tobacco itself, but doing it through the cycle of poverty and child labour. Tobacco companies in Malawi including Alliance One, Africa Leaf (Malawi) Limited, Premium and British American Tobacco (Malawi), are sponsoring the Eliminating Child Labor in Tobacco Growing Foundation (ECLT).
The project, which includes other agricultural industries, is run by Together Ensuring Children Security (TECS), a registered trust set up in 2001 by tobacco exporting corporations operating in Malawi.
In 2001, ECLT budgeted $2 million for a four-year effort to combat child labour. Six years later, in October 2007, the 20 companies within the supply chain of the tobacco industry had ponied up somewhat less than $100,000 of that amount, according to TECS's corporate newsletter.
The University of California researchers are sceptical of the inherent conflict of interest in having tobacco companies influence social policy. They concluded that in Malawi, multinational tobacco companies are using child labour projects to enhance their corporate reputations and distract public attention away from how they profit from low wages and cheaply produced tobacco.
Others argue that even when useful, the TECS program is a drop in an ocean of poverty. Up to 45% of the population is poor, according to the 2007 Malawi Millennium Development Goal report. Registered as a trust under the Trustees Act of Malawi, TECS projects have taken what it calls "a poverty reduction strategy approach" to improve food security, water safety and HIV/AIDS intervention and education.
Too little, too late?
It is too late for children like 15-year-old Martha Kalima, who dropped out of school aged 12 to work in the tobacco fields. Pregnant at 14, she continued working in the fields until she gave birth. The father was the 16-year-old son of another tenant farmer.
"There is nothing like maternity leave for tobacco workers", Kalima said. "No one is entitled to sick leave nor is there transport to hospital. I gave birth at home because it was too late for me to get to hospital."
Kalima returned to the tobacco fields carrying the baby on her back. Chances are slim that she will return to school.
Some 15% of girls and 12% of boys drop out of school, according to Malawi government statistics. Around 22% of primary school age girls never attend school at all, while 60% of those enrolled do not attend regularly.
The TECS corporate newsletter confirms that children with few options are pulled from school. Some are "coaxed from the poverty-stricken homes to work in order to keep body and soul together. They are exposed to hazardous environments where they work long hours and do jobs not befitting their ages and they are often beaten and abused."
That was the fate of 16-year-old Ekari Maliwasa, who says she has just returned to her village in the south of Malawi after working for five years in the tobacco estates in the northern part of the country.
"My parents took me with them to work in the tobacco estates in the north [when I was 11] and I only escaped back to my village two months ago after realising that I was being abused. I am now staying with my elderly grandmother", says Maliwasa.
She says the estate manager beat her whenever he found her resting from the hard work in the tobacco fields. Maliwasa also went without food or drink for long hours and was not allowed to take a break until she had worked for five hours.
Maliwasa's treatment, like that endured by many of Malawi's child labourers, violated not only international standards but also legally binding treaties. Malawi is a signatory to a number of conventions against child labour including the 1973 International Labor Organization Convention 138 that sets a minimum working age of 18, and the 1999 ILO Convention 182 that outlaws child labour.
The country also ratified the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. (The ILO has set 2016 as the deadline for countries around the world to eliminate the worst forms of child labour.)
Child labour cannot be ended overnight says TECS executive director Bobby Maynard. "You can manage the supply chain to a certain degree but you can't control it fully", he says. "The problem is that over 80 percent of tobacco is grown with no contracts from the tobacco companies — as such it is difficult to intervene directly."
Tobacco companies note that they are involved in policing child labour violations at estates where they have direct control, and that they subscribe to Good Agricultural Practices, whose first principle is "no child labour".
Their results in curbing the practice, however, have not been impressive.
Relying on British American Tobacco's own internal documents, the University of California study found that, "rather than actively and responsibly working to solve the problem of child labor in growing tobacco, the company acted to co-opt the issue to present themselves over as a 'socially responsible corporation' by releasing a policy statement claiming the company's commitment to end harmful child labor practices, holding a global child labor conference with trade unions and other key stakeholders, and contributing nominal sums of money for development projects largely unrelated to efforts to end child labor."
International agencies are also involved. Kusali Kubwalo, communications officer for UNICEF Malawi, said the United Nations has joined Malawi's government and several non-governmental organisations to fight the problem from several fronts.
A national "Stop child abuse campaign" aims to break the silence shrouding all forms of child abuse, including child labour.
"The campaign aims to mobilise leadership and a commitment at all levels to prevent and respond to all forms of abuse", says Kubwalo. "Violations of children's rights take place every day in Malawi and are extensive, under-recognised and under-reported."
She insists that Malawi, as a signatory to the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, is obligated to respect, protect, facilitate and promote the fulfilment of the rights it guarantees.
"This instrument must therefore be translated into concrete legislation, interventions and development programs", says Kubwalo. "Ratification alone is not enough."