24 August 2009: A new Plan report has revealed how child tobacco pickers in Malawi are being exposed to high levels of nicotine poisoning - the equivalent of 50 cigarettes per day.
‘Hard work, little pay and long hours’ documents how children as young as 5 are working up to 12 hours a day for as little as 1 pence an hour.
It is estimated that over 78,000 children work on tobacco estates across Malawi but Plan’s research is thought to be the first with child pickers recording their own experiences.
Sick and abused
The children who took part in Plan’s participatory research spoke about the need to work to support themselves, their families and pay school fees.
As well as physical and sexual abuse by their employers many were unknowingly showing classic signs of Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS).
This is a common and recognised hazard of workers absorbing nicotine through their skin by contact with moist tobacco leaves. There is a lack of research into long term effects of GTS in children, but experts believe it could seriously impair their development.
The children reported symptoms including severe headaches, abdominal pain, muscle weakness, coughing and breathlessness.
“Sometimes it feels like you don’t have enough breath, you don’t have enough oxygen. You reach a point where you cannot breathe because of the pain in your chest. Then the blood comes when you vomit. At the end, most of this dies and then you remain with a headache,” one child said.
Malawi is the world’s fifth biggest tobacco producer and the crop accounts for 70% of export income but despite the profits of multinational companies, local tobacco farmers continually struggle to break even.
This leads them to look for ways to cut costs with more children being exposed to hazardous and exploitative working conditions.
Plan is now calling upon tobacco companies and plantations to vastly improve working conditions and live up to their own promised corporate responsibility guidelines by scrutinising their suppliers far more closely.
They should provide safe environments and non-exploitative wages and access to education for those children who have to work.
Plan also wants the government of Malawi to rigorously enforce existing child labour and protection laws and review land inheritance laws which restrict families’ ownership of land.
Visit Plan Sweden's 'Tobacco's children' campaign website (trailer in English).