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Malawi: Lawyers announce lawsuit demanding British American Tobacco compensate families working under poverty wages on tobacco fields; Company comments included

In October 2019, human rights lawyers from Leigh Day announced they were preparing a lawsuit against British American Tobacco (BAT), on behalf of children and families in Malawi, working on tobacco fields supplying the company.

They are acting for nearly 2,000 claimants, arguing that the company is guilty of 'unjust enrichment'. While BAT argue they have told families not to use their children as unpaid labour, the lawyers say that families cannot afford to work in the fields without including their children, because they receive so little for their crop.

The lawyers also argue that the work these families do are forced or bonded labour, because they are misled when recruited, often promised food, accommodation and a lump sum of cash, are afraid to leave, and quickly get into debt.

Although BAT separates itself from the farmers by commissioning separate companies to buy the tobacco leaf from the farms, the lawyers state that responsibility rests with BAT, as they decide how much is paid for tobacco leaf.

Following the announcement, the US government suspended all imports of tobacco from Malawi over the child labour allegations. , A Withhold Release order was issued, meaning shipments arriving in the United States would be detained at the port of entry, and importers would have to prove the tobacco was not produced with labour prohibited under US law, to have the shipment released.

Comments from BAT can be found below.

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Article
3 December 2019

Case Against Tobacco Giant Could Protect Children

Author: Margaret Wurth, Human Rights Watch, on Inter Press Service

Legal action against British American Tobacco (BAT), one of the world’s largest tobacco firms, could see the company punished for profiting from child labor and force the industry to finally confront its treatment of vulnerable workers.

The case, brought by human rights lawyers on behalf of hundreds of tenant farmers and their children in Malawi, contends that the company is guilty of “unjust enrichment.”...The claimants are suing for compensation, and their lawyers believe it could force the company to pay more for the leaf it buys to ensure proper livelihoods for the workers and farmers at the bottom of its supply chain.

BAT said it takes the issue “extremely seriously” and makes clear to all its farmers and suppliers that exploitative child labor “will not be tolerated.”...

The impossibly difficult situation that tobacco farming families in Malawi face mirrors what I’ve seen in all the countries where I’ve investigated child labor in tobacco farming. Driven by poverty, children work in tobacco farming to help their families make ends meet, to raise money for school fees or books, or to help their parents increase their earnings or save money on hired labor.
 
In the United States, I spoke with children as young as 7 and their parents. One farmworker, a single mother of five children, told me, “What I earn is not sufficient for my family. My children have to work to buy school supplies, clothes, the things you have to pay for at school.”
 
Small-scale tobacco farmers in Indonesia told me they were too poor to hire laborers, so their children often helped in the fields.
 

 

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Article
5 November 2019

USA: Government suspends imports of tobacco from Malawi following child labour allegations

Author: Sarah Boseley, The Guardian

"US suspends Malawi tobacco imports after child labour allegations", 3 November 2019

The US government has suspended all imports of tobacco from Malawi over child labour allegations.

The ban follows the news that human rights lawyers are to bring a case against British American Tobacco (BAT)_in the high court in London over child labour in Malawi’s tobacco fields...Leigh Day are acting for nearly 2,000 claimants – children and their parents – and expect that up to 15,000 will join the case.

US Customs and Border Protection...issued a Withhold Release order on tobacco from Malawi, meaning shipments arriving in the United States will be detained at the port of entry. Importers will have to prove the tobacco is not produced with labour prohibited under US law to have the shipment released...

...Customs and Border Protection said it had issued the order based on information collected by the agency that reasonably indicated the tobacco from Malawi was produced using forced labour and forced child labour....

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Article
1 November 2019

Malawi: Lawyers to launch 'landmark' case against British American Tobacco over child labour & poverty wages

Author: Sarah Boseley, The Guardian

"BAT faces landmark legal case over Malawi families' poverty wages", 31 October 2019

Human rights lawyers are preparing to bring a landmark case against British American Tobacco 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...

 ...The case...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...

...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...it has distanced itself from the farmers by commissioning a separate company to buy a stipulated amount of tobacco leaf each year...

 ...BAT [said their] core policies “specifically state that we do not condone forced, bonded or involuntary labour; and that we do not condone or employ child labour...”...[They] said BAT made it clear to contract farmers and suppliers that exploitative child labour and forced and bonded labour would not be tolerated...

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