British American Tobacco didn‘t anticipate what happened late October 2019. British human rights lawyers will seek compensation for hundreds of working children and their families in bringing a case against British American Tobacco (BAT). Their justification: the cigarette corporation is guilty of „unjust enrichment“ on the backs of working children and exploits Malawian farming families.

Children on the tobacco field

After the Guardian reported in summer 2018 about child labour on Malawian tobacco fields, the British law firm Leigh Day decided to act and sue the British cigarette corporation BAT. Jointly with the author of the report the lawyers collected more information on the tobacco fields in Malawi and incorporated it into the letter of claim:

  • The families are recruited as tenants to tobacco plantations with the promise of accommodation, food and a lump sum in cash at the end of the season.
  • The families have to built their accommodation by themselves – it‘s a straw hut. As food they receive a sack of maize per month which is not enough to feed the whole family.
  • Children are involved in tobacco growing, starting at the age of three.
  • Children suffer particularly under poisonous chemicals and Green Tobacco Sickness.
  • Children have difficulties to go to school and don‘t have leisure time.
  • Last season, most of the claimants earned between 115 and 230 Euro for ten months of work for a family of five.

The lawyers conclude: This work comes down to forced or bonded labour, because the tenants are misled during recruitment, they are afraid of leaving the plantation and rapidly get into debt.

BAT is responsible for its supply chain

Last year, British American Tobacco (BAT) made an operating profit of 10.8 billion Euro (on sales of 28.6 billion Euro). Like other corporations in other business areas, BAT dissociated itself from the working conditions at the far end of its supply chain. Every year, British American Tobacco buys an agreed amount of tobacco leaf from Alliance One, an international leaf merchant corporation. Alliance One contracts land owners in Malawi who in turn recruit tenants for the plantations.

The cigarette corporation declared that the company is opposed to exploitative child labour and that it communicated this to farmers and suppliers. Additionally, suppliers were required to participate in the so called sustainable tobacco programme which is claimed to be aligned with UN standards.

The human rights lawyers judge differently: the responsibility for the living and working conditions of tenants rests ultimately with BAT, because the cigarette corporation decides the price it will pay for the tobacco leaf.

This case could change the lives of many children who are forced to work under exploitative conditions in countries of the Global South, not only in tobacco fields but also in other business areas such as the garment industry.

Case excites first reactions in the USA

Until now the case is not yet filed, heard nor decided. But already we can see first consequences in the USA. For years, the US Department of Labor listed tobacco from Malawi as being produced with forced and/or child labour.

At last, the customs authorities acted due to the announcement of the claim and issued a withhold release order. Since 1 November 2019 tobacco leaf originating from Malawi is withheld at the U.S. ports of entry unless importers prove that the tobacco has not been produced with forced and/or child labour. Alike this applies for products containing tobacco from Malawi. Although this is not an import ban, this type of enforcement has been rare in the United States.

What does the suspension mean for child labour on Malawi‘s tobacco fields? For the time being nothing in concrete, but it increases public interest in the tobacco supply chain.

Committed against child labour in the tobacco sector

Since many years, the International Labour Organization (ILO) fights against child labour in the tobacco sector, particularly in Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Malawi. Until the end of 2018, these projects have been financed by the tobacco industry. Thus, cigarette corporations have been able to establish cooperative relationships with ILO representatives which these companies don‘t need to combat child labour, but to impede tobacco control.

Since years, civil society organisations (including us) have been working to convince the ILO to align with other UN agencies and distance itself from the tobacco industry. At its latest session end of October 2019, the ILO Governing Body finally has decided not to take any more money from tobacco companies to implement such projects.

This is not the end of projects against child labour in the tobacco sector. The projects in these four countries will be part of ILO‘s integrated strategy that should lead to the improvement of working conditions in the tobacco sector. Within this strategy, alternative livelihoods for tobacco farming families are supposed to be supported.

British human rights lawyers: The responsibility for the living and working conditions of tenants rests ultimately with BAT who decides the price it will pay for the tobacco.