End of the road for child labour
Some six years ago, in the vast tea fields at Nakambwe Estate, a division of Conforzi Tobacco, Tea Tung Limited, 12 year-old Chipo Manda and a group of small boys and girls could be seen with bamboo baskets strapped to their backs plucking tea leaves in the hot October sun. The fast ones got home early while the slow ones normally went home in the afternoon.
Just like Chipo, over 600 children from the villagers neighbouring Nakambwe Tea Fields worked at one time or the other found themselves working in the tea estates or factory. The same was the story inside the noisy tobacco factory at the same company and many other companies in the tea growing district of Thyolo in southern Malawi. The boys and girls all worked hard to make money.
This was the state of affairs at the company many years ago before the issue of child labour became hot in the country. While some people allege that there is still child labour in the estates, the estates authorities deny it.
Personnel Manager for Conforzi Tobacco, Tea & Tung Limited in Thyolo district, Maki Gondwe puts it succinctly: We stopped it. In fact, some Ministry of Labour officers go round the estates to see if there are any underage workers. We attend all seminars on child labour, said Gondwe.
He said employing young persons has very drastic effects on the lives of the children and that the move against it is aimed at improving the lives of the children of Malawi.
In fact, you might also wish to know that those days when we used to employ many children on temporary basis, many left school because they loved money. Many hated school and opted for employment. Money mattered more than anything else here. Even as children grew up, they used to think money was everything and had to work to earn it, says Gondwe.
District Education Manager in the tea growing district of Thyolo, Sam Kalanda also noted there is change in the district. He said although he did not have exact statistics on the extent of the problem, there is a move towards eradicating child labour in the district.
The good thing is that these companies have got their own committees which discuss child labour. For example, there was a high dropout of pupils at Bandanga Tea Estate but the company denied employing underage workers around it, said Kalanda, who partly attributes the problem to parents.
Sometimes it is the parents who encourage their children not to go to school. They let the children guard houses while they go to work in the estates. In some cases, parents working in these estates find jobs for their children, he said, adding there are efforts in many estates to do away with child labour.
Foreign companies are also playing an important role in cracking down the problem of child labour. Some of them are helping to fight the practice by declaring that they would not import products from Malawian companies, which use child labour.
Following this development, Malawi has been given an order by the German government to supply weaving baskets because it does not use child labour in producing the baskets.
British High Commissioner to Malawi, Norman Ling, recently told participants at the international workshop on marketing and exporting food products in Lilongwe that the order has been taken from Morocco because the country was using child labour in producing the baskets. We all know that here in Malawi, weaving baskets are made by adults and above all they are of high quality, said Ling.
In the tobacco industry the trend is also the same. Some international tobacco buyers have threatened to stop buying tobacco if the country dares to use child labour in the industry.
In complimenting the multinational companies that are refusing to buy products which used child labour in its production, various non governmental organisations have embarked on various projects to fight the situation. One of such non governmental organisations is the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) -funded Creative Centre for Community Mobilisation (Creccom).
Creccom, under its Social Mobilisation Campaign for Education Quality (SMC-EQ) programme, is mobilising communities to take full charge of education and stamp out factors that hinder children from accessing quality education.
A Creccom official, Levison Lijoni, says the main objective is to empower communities to seek their own solutions to problems, which impinge progress in achieving quality education in their areas.
The problem of children working in estates is more their own than it is for anybody else, and it is only them that they can play an instrumental role in solving it, says Lijoni, adding that he is so far impressed with progress made.
Creccom officials drilled stakeholders in Mzimba at Mbalachanda Tobacco Estate, who included traditional, political, civic leaders, educationists and school committee members, on community empowerment.
In a few months, residents around Mbalachanda Tobacco Estate discussed the problem of child labour with estate owners and agreed to remove children from estates, and send them to school. The starting point was to change people s attitudes, and take the children from the farms into schools.
Currently, pupils enrolments are 40 per cent higher than those of eight years ago. That is a clear indication that parents are now putting value on education rather than beefing up their family coffers at the expense of their children s education, says Mzimba district Primary Education Advisor Sipika Nkhonjera.
Apart from Crecom, the Story Workshop, an educational and creative centre for community sensitisation, has joined forces with the Malawi Government and donors to step-up the fight against child labour through a new 18-episode radio soap opera, Tilitonse Tisazunze Ana (Don t Exploit Children).
The new soap opera, which is aired on the country s biggest radio station - the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC Radio 1), follows the story of the popular Tilitonse character Jere as it takes the listener into the world of Malawi s working children who have been forced into adult labour for a variety of reasons, including poverty and effects of HIV/AIDS on family life.
The programme is funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development and Unicef, who are working hand-in-hand with government to ensure that laws protecting children from working long hours and neglecting their education are followed to the letter.
Labour and Vocational Training Minister Alice Sumani says that keeping children out of school to work is promoting and sustaining poverty in the country. There is no better job for a child in this world than going to school. Parents must appreciate this fact, said Sumani.
Asbjorn Eidhammaer, Norwegian Ambassador to Malawi, says that child labour is a problem that is very clearly linked to poverty. He said there is nothing cultural about children working full-time in other people s shops for a meagre salary. He said this is exploitation.
Section 24 to 26 of the Employment Act of Malawi states that it is an offence punishable by the law to offer employment to children under the age of fourteen. Meanwhile the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training is carrying out spot checks in tea and tobacco estates to make sure that child labour is completely brought to a halt.
Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training Zebron Kambuto said to make sure that child labour is busted the ministry would continue making visits and checks to working places which were hotspots for child labour.
Malawi is one of the countries that ratified the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 182 on Child labour in 1999. The Convention resolved that all children under the age of 16 should not be given employment.
With the commitment that the government, NGOs, tobacco and tea industry is displaying in fighting child labour, it is obvious that the practice of employing children like 12-year-old Manda will soon come to an end.