BLANTYRE--Malawian President Joyce Banda on Wednesday said her poor southern African nation seeks to eliminate the employment of 1.4 million child labourers in the agriculture sector, the backbone of the economy, with international backing.
“Child labour is an evil that is robbing the nation of a skilled labour force and needs to be dealt with,” Banda said when she opened a two-day national conference, themed ‘End child labour in agriculture, our children our future.’
Agriculture, which powers the economy with the tobacco industry as the main provider of foreign exchange, is the single biggest employer of child labourers in the country, where half of the 14 million citizens live below the poverty line and on less than a dollar a day.
Banda said: “It is sad to learn that child labour has now worsened .We cannot allow this to go on. So if you stand up and talk about stamping out child labour and child trafficking, you have a partner in me.”
Guided by the Global Action Plan on Child Labour and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Malawi has developed a six-year national action plan which ends in 2016 to provide direction for progressive elimination of child.
Malawi Congress of Trade Union (MCTU) president Luther Mambala said child labour was “frighteningly high” in Malawi, saying there was need for a “speedy legislative intervention to help stop the practice.”
He said child labour had “grown roots due to a deliberate system of tenancy put in place by those practicing it, especially in the tobacco industry which leaves the child with no choice.”
“The system is designed so that the tenant has no choice but to involve his entire family in the production of tobacco. Tenants are recruited on the basis that they have a family which they will bring to the estate to work.
He said children were usually not employed directly on the farm, but work as part of the tenants’ family. “So you can see how the child is trapped in the process.”
International children’s rights group Plan in 2009 said in its study that thousands of children working in Malawi's tobacco fields suffer nicotine poisoning equal to smoking 50 cigarettes a day.
"Child labourers, some as young as five, are suffering severe physical symptoms from absorbing up to 54 milligrams a day of dissolved nicotine through their skin -- the equivalent of 50 average cigarettes," said the report entitled "Hard work, little pay and long hours".
Nicotine poisoning, also known as Green Tobacco Sickness, is more severe in children due to their size and because they have not built up a tolerance to nicotine through smoking.
Children are forced to work in tobacco fields instead of attending school, mainly due to poverty and hunger.
Plan said some of the child labourers work up to 12 hours a day, many for less than the equivalent of 1.7 US cents an hour and without protective clothing.
Known as "green gold", tobacco accounts for up to 70 percent of the country's foreign exchange earnings and employs close to a half-a-million people.
Plan urged the Malawi government to "rigorously enforce existing child labour and protection laws" and plantations to provide safer, fairer working conditions for those children forced to work in estates.
Multinational companies buy the majority of Malawi's low-grade, high-nicotine burley tobacco, which is often used as a filler in cigarettes across Europe and North America.
The firms were also implored to scrutinise their suppliers more closely and strictly adhere to their own corporate responsibility guidelines.
More than 300,000 peasant farmers in Malawi grow burley, a thin-leafed brand dried in the open. The country is the world's largest exporter of burley.
Tobacco in the past has raked in 461 million US dollars.
The World Bank, one of the main sponsors of the country's tough economic reforms, forced the government of Kamuzu Banda in the 1980s to liberalise the growing of burley tobacco in a bid to help peasant farmers.
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