World Day Against Child Labor

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Tea fields in Malawi’s Thyolo District.

On drives through Malawi’s lush tea-growing region, I am regularly reminded that I am in a “child labour free zone” by concrete billboards. The signs, dotting the evergreen fields in Thyolo and Mulanje districts, are sponsored by the Tea Association of Malawi, which organizes the handful of tea producers in the country. The Tea Association helps ensure that Malawi’s tea companies, from the family-owned to the multi-national, keep a good name for the industry. For an agribusiness company operating in the developing world today, keeping a good name requires vigilant attention to child labor laws and trends in international advocacy. 

Tea is one of Malawi’s most important exports, and the small southern African country ranks as the second largest producer of tea in Africa behind Kenya. The industry is the largest formal employer in Malawi, with about 60,000 working on the estates (company-owned farms), and about one million people across the country benefitting from the industry. That means that one in every 16 Malawians relies on tea in some way to survive. The tea estates employ thousands of unskilled workers to pick tea and perform other agricultural tasks. They also buy tea from small farmers who own nearby plots, and process that tea along with their own for export.  

About ten years ago, international organizations, including the International Labor Organization, the Eye of the Child, and UNICEF, reported on the prevalence of child labor in the company-owned tea fields in Malawi. The latest national statistics date from 2004 and report that almost 36 percent of kids in Malawi under the age of 14 work. There is limited data on the situation in the tea sector more specifically, even after an international campaign on the issue. Getting reliable information on a sensitive problem in a remote area is a real challenge. The best survey on the issue, conducted in 2003, relied primarily on interviews. It concluded that “the general opinion seems to be that child labour is rampant also in the tea sector in Malawi, especially during peak season.” More accurate data would require extensive fieldwork run by local survey teams with the ability to establish trust and spend concentrated time in the communities. 

The bad press of the anti-child labor campaign prompted policy changes both on the part of the Government of Malawi and the corporations working in the tea sector. I imagine the tea companies want to hire only those over the age of 21 or 18, but doing so is a logistical challenge in a country without a national identification system. Many people in rural areas are not sure of their ages themselves. To address the issue, most companies ask new hires to sign a contract verifying that they are over the age of 18. Some hiring managers also try to eyeball candidates, and turn away any applicants who look younger than 21–just in case. The official working age in Malawi is 14, but for tasks that are defined as “the worst kinds of child labour,” the age is 18. Tea work is not included among the “worst kinds,” which are limited to those that can harm the worker’s health or expose the worker to what is considered to be dangerous behavior. 

As I have spent time in the tea industry, meeting with hired labor on the estates as well as with the small farmers around them, kids have been a regular part of my days, as anywhere else in Malawi. Babies are on their mothers’ backs as they work in the fields, kids hang out with their older siblings at meetings with small farmers, and girls walking home from school wave at me and try out their English to say a warm hello. It’s no surprise that kids are part of the fabric of my days in the tea region. Kids–specifically those under the age of 14–make up about 45% of the country’s population. About one million of them are orphans. The HIV/AIDS rate in the country is one in 11. The life expectancy is 53, which means that the 18 year olds who are able to work for the first time are about a third of the way through the lives they can expect to live. 

Given that context and the stark realities they represent, I wonder about what happens to the 16 year old kid who can’t get a job making minimum wage on a tea estate. Does he go back to school? I’d like to think so, but if he left school in the first place to work, doesn’t he need to earn money? Would he even have the cash to pay school fees? Does he need to earn to support his younger siblings? If this individual has other pressing needs that are putting him in the position of working in tea fields at the age of 16, where is he going to go when he is turned out of those fields by a well-meaning international advocacy movement? Likely, he’ll work informally, earning less than minimum wage, for a wealthier member of his community who owns some land. Or perhaps he’ll try and get work on the nearby mountain as a guide, or maybe even if he has a loan from a microfinance bank, he’ll buy a bike a run a bike taxi business. But I doubt that this 16 year old gets to go back to school or to do any of the other things that kids do in an ideal world. He came to the tea fields to earn money, and I bet he’ll keep trying, one way or another.

There is a chasm between the ideas about what kids deserve and usually can expect in a developed country, and the reality of life in a country like Malawi. I think that the international organizations working on this issue try to do the right thing, but the “right thing” is a complex and sometimes elusive solution. The companies are also trying to do right by both their investors and the communities. I agree that kids shouldn’t have to work, but if they are not able to work, not able to learn, and need money to eat, what should they do? 

Today is World Day Against Child Labor. The organizations that work in this space will use today, and the countless statistics and heartbreaking stories surrounding this issue, to raise funds and awareness to keep kids out of the workplace. My hope is that as advocacy on issues around child labor in developing countries continues, as it should, it is coupled with extensive research and the development of sustainable programs for those people under the age of 18 who do sorely need work, and lack other options. 

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