The British American Tobacco will soon be facing a landmark case being prepared by human rights lawyer on behalf of hundreds of children and their families forced by poverty wages to work in conditions of gruelling hard labour in the fields of Malawi.
Leigh Day’s lawyers are seeking compensation for more than 350 child labourers and their parents in the high court in London, arguing that the British company is guilty of “unjust enrichment”. Leigh Day says it anticipates the number of child labourer claimants to rise as high as 15,000.
While BAT claims it has told farmers not to use their children as unpaid labour, the lawyers say the families cannot afford to work their fields otherwise, because they receive so little money for their crop.
The case, potentially one of the biggest that human rights lawyers have ever brought, could transform the lives of children in poor countries who are forced to work to survive not only in tobacco but also in other industries such as the garment trade.
It follows exposure of the scale and brutal reality of child labour in the tobacco fields of Malawi by the Guardian last year, which Martyn Day, a founding partner and head of the firm, said had provoked them to act.
Many of the families recruited are from Phalombe, one of the poorest regions in the south of the country. They are recruited to tobacco farms in the north with the promise of food, accommodation and a lump sum in cash for their crop.
According to the letter of claim, seen by the Guardian, last season most claimants earned no more than £100 to £200 for 10 months’ work for a family of five. Their lawyers’ say the work amounts to forced or bonded labour because they are misled when recruited, are afraid to leave and quickly get into debt.
Children as young as three are involved in tobacco farming, the letter of claim says, often during harvest when the work can be especially hazardous. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of toxic pesticides, fertiliser and green tobacco sickness, from nicotine absorption while handling the leaves. Symptoms include breathing difficulties, cramps and vomiting.
Some children go to school, as the law requires, but often only sporadically. Almost all work from sunrise in the fields before school and then when they get home, as well as through the weekend. At harvest time, classrooms empty.
BAT is one of the most profitable companies in the world, making an operating profit last year of £9.3bn on sales of £24.5bn. Like other big tobacco companies, it has distanced itself from the farmers by commissioning a separate company to buy a stipulated amount of tobacco leaf each year.
A report in 2011 estimated there were 1.3 million children under the age of 14 working in tobacco around the world. In 2017, an International Labour Organisation report said child labour in tobacco was on the increase and “rampant”. (Source: The Guardian)