Human rights lawyers are preparing to bring a landmark case against British American Tobacco (BAT) on behalf of hundreds of children and their families forced by poverty wages to work in conditions of grueling hard labor in the fields of Malawi.
Leigh Day’s lawyers are seeking compensation for more than 350 child laborers and their parents in the High Court in London, saying that the British company is guilty of “unjust enrichment.”
The number of child laborer claimants could rise to as high as 15,000, Day said.
While BAT claims it has told farmers not to use their children as unpaid labor, the lawyers said that the families cannot afford to work their fields otherwise, because they receive so little money for their harvest.
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 is totally depressing that one of the largest companies in the world, and certainly one of the largest British companies, is involved in an area where the employment of children is such a fundamental part of what happens,” founding partner and head of the firm Martyn Day said. “It has been going on for decades, and as a result of all of that the farmers of Malawi are caught in a groundhog day, where one generation after another is having to farm tobacco and is caught in a poverty trap.”
Many of the families 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.
Their accommodation is a straw hut that they must build themselves, and the food is a monthly sack of corn, which is insufficient to feed the family and which is stopped before their tenancy ends.
The lump sum they are paid at the end of the season dwindles often to less than half of what is offered after deductions for tools and loans that the families have to take out to pay for essentials.
According to the letter of claim, last season most claimants earned no more than ￡100 to ￡200 (US$130 to US$260) for 10 months’ work for a family of five.
Their lawyers said the work amounts to forced or bonded labor 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, fertilizer and green tobacco sickness, from nicotine absorption while handling the leaves. Symptoms include breathing difficulties, cramps and vomiting.
BAT is one of the most profitable companies in the world, making an operating profit last year of ￡9.3 billion on sales of ￡24.5 billion.
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.
Alliance One signs contracts with land-owning farmers in Malawi, who then recruit tenant farmer families to work the fields.
The lawyers have sent BAT the letter of claim and said that they expect to issue proceedings this year.
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