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Tobacco workers on starvation wages

The larger tobacco farmers in Malawi do not employ anyone under the age of 15. Childeren aren't productive enough to defend the four-cents-an-hour salary. Even working 72 hours a week the tobacco labourers make a mere fifth of average pay in the World's ninth poorest country.
Artikkelen er mer enn to år gammel. Ting kan ha endret seg.
The larger tobacco farmers in Malawi do not employ anyone under the age of 15. Childeren aren't productive enough to defend the four-cents-an-hour salary. Even working 72 hours a week the tobacco labourers make a mere fifth of average pay in the World's ninth poorest country.

By David Stenerud, Malawi

We're in Malawi, a small coast-less country in the southern part of Africa with less than 12 million inhabitants. It's mid August.

On the Chikumbutso farm close to the Zambian boarder they are still a week away from having graded, packed in 100 kilo bells and sent the tobacco off to the auction floor in the capital Lilongwe some 40 miles furter east.

- This year is good, we will bring in some 17 million kwacha (225 000 US dollars), bragged manager J. S. Banda. He is responsible for the day to day operations on the 70 hectar tobacco farm. The owner is a white Zimbabwer. 

During the harvest season, the Chikumbutso farm employ a good 300 people. Now, during the grading and packing some 50 work here.

Most of the work goes on inside the grading hall - hot and moist like in sauna. The air is stuffed with nicotin, since all the tobacco has to be made wet before grading: A coal oven with a water container over it and tobacco leafs on top of that is going on full speed in a corner of the hall all day.

Breast-feeding mothers
All moist and ready the leafs are graded according to size and quality. Mostly younger men and women handle this task. Many of the women carry feeding children in a shawl on their bellies.

- We do not hire anyone under 15 years of age, said J. S. Banda. - It simply isn't profitable.

- How much do the workers make? we asked.

- Some 60-70 cents a day, the manager replied. - They get paid at the end of each month. It's better that way, otherwise they spend it all at once, he explained.

A work-day on the Cikumbutso farm is of course 12 hours. Me, I'm heavy breathing and a bit dizzy after only ten minutes inside the grading hall. Nicotin is after all a poison, and even though nobody cares about the labourers health here, it is a well known fact that tobacco workers often suffer from nicortin poisoning ("Hooked on Tobacco", at www.christian-aid.org.uk).

Nobody wears niether gloves nor inhalation filter here, and if one gets sick, one's 65 cents poorer each day... it's as easy as that.

Earn even less
Fence to fence with the Chikumbutso farm we find another tobacco property; the 50 hectar Chimwemwe farm (See separate story!), which is owned by government company ADMARC. Here they are already done grading and have sent all their tobacco away to the auction floor. The new seeds were in the ground eight weeks ago.

The Malawian government in fact pay their workers less than the white Zimbabwer of the Chikumbutso farm. The young men who spread pesticiedes over the nursery at the Chimwemwe estate make less than half a dollar a day.

What is a dollar?
The avarage salary in Malawi is about three percent of the Norwegian. That is, a common Malawian earn some 760 US dollars a year. Earning a petty 48 cents a day, a tobacco worker, going six days a week will make a little over 150 US dollars a year. In addition; one Malawian in employment often supports up to ten children and elderlies (Malawi - National Human Development Report 2001, UNEP)

In other words, a Malawian tobacco worker makes only a fifth of average salary in the ninth poorest country in the world. If he wants a packet of cigarettes, he will have to work three days, if the labourer wants a soda, he can afford it after 10 hours. If he or she lives on maiz and water alone, as most do, ends meet - assuming there aren't to many mouths to feed.

'Cause, seeing as Malawi, following an IMF advice, has done away with the governmental price control, there is now market price on maiz. After two poor harvests in a row, the prices have tripled in on-and-a-half years. Today, one kilo of maiz flour costs some 33 cents.

Self-explanatory then; that it is hard to make ends meet, earning 48 cents a day, having a large family to support. Most good workers can allways have some maiz on tick from the farmer, though...

Facts: Tiedemann and Malawi
Johan H. Andresen owns (through his company Ferd) 17,2 percent of the Scandinavian Tobacco Co. (ST) stocks. Tiedemann is a fully owned subsidiary of ST. According to information director Jan Robert Kvam, Tiedemann receives approximately one percent of its tobacco from Malawi.
Tiedemann Tobaksfabrik produce brands like Prince, Teddy, Petteröes and South State in Norway. The raw tobacco Tiedemann imports from Malawi is purchased from three major suppliers, which-of US company Limbe Leaf (Universal Leaf) is the bigger.

Facts: Malawi and tobacco
Last year (2001) Malawi had a total tobacco production of 140 000 tons. That is more than 2 percent of total global annual production. Much of the Malawian tobacco ends up in Norway, mostly via Denmark. Tobacco is without a doupt the no. 1 export from Malawi. Directly and indirectly, tobacco repesents the main mean of livelihood for more than half of Malawi's 12 million people. (Fafo), and as much as 70 percent of the country's export earnings come from tobacco (UNEP). Malawi is the ninth poortest country in the world. This year (2002), the Malawians experience the most devastating famine ever.

Norwatch Newsletter 7-8/02