A group of tobacco farmers in Malawi have filed a claim in British courts, alleging that years of worker exploitation and child labor violations are among the real reasons for why two tobacco firms have been so profitable.
The claims against British American Tobacco (BAT), Imperial Brands, and their parent companies and subsidiaries were filled in High Court in London on Friday, on behalf of several thousand poor farmers and their families.
“It is entirely depressing that here in 2020 two of Britain’s largest multinationals are profiting from the use of child labor,” said Martyn Day, a partner at the Leigh Day law firm representing the Malawians. “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.”
Those working on the tobacco farms in the central and northern parts of Malawi are essentially living in slavery while the combined revenues of the companies in 2019 amounted to £9.9 billion (more than US$13 billion), the lawyers said.
Meanwhile, the tobacco farmers say they and their children work from 6 a.m. to midnight seven days a week in dangerous conditions, are forced to build their own mud houses, and fall deeper in debt to the companies because they are forced to borrow money to buy food. In some cases, farmers have sold their daughters in order to pay down their debts.
The attorneys also note that Malawi’s laws, which artificially force some of the lowest prices for tobacco in the world, contribute to the farmers’ plight.
British American Tobacco, which has denied the abuse claims in the past, released a human rights report on December 10, called “Journey to a Better Tomorrow.” It touts a commitment to end child labor in its agricultural supply chain by 2025.
“This journey will not be easy, but by focusing on the most difficult issues I believe we can push ourselves to create A Better Tomorrow for everyone,” said BAT head Jack Bowles.