Malawi Child Laborers Suffer Nicotine Poisoning

Akito Yoshikane

Young workers labor in a tobacco field.

Children as young as five in Malawi’s tobacco industry are exposed to nicotine levels equal to smoking 50 cigarettes a day, according to a recent report by a children’s rights organization.

The report, Hard work, long hours and little pay,” released by London-based Plan International, details the growing number of children working in Malawi’s tobacco fields — a trend due in large part to multinational companies who have moved three-fourths of their production to developing countries to cut costs.

Children bear the brunt of the labor in Malawi’s tobacco fields — one of the world’s largest exporters — which generate 70 percent of their nation’s export income.

The south African country has the highest incidence of child labor in the region. More than 78,000 children between 5 – 14 years-old make just 17 U.S. cents for 12 hours of work in tobacco fields.

In addition to meager pay, the young laborers suffer significant health consequences. The organization reports that without protective clothing, children absorb up to 54 milligrams a day (roughly two-and-a-half-packs of cigarettes) of dissolved tobacco through their skin.

In a survey of 44 children in three districts, many complained of physical symptoms of Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS) such as coughing, breathlessness, and vomiting blood as a result of inhaling the tobacco dust while sorting the plants. One child said in the report:

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.

The long-term health effects from GTS are alarming. Symptoms are more severe in children than adults since they haven’t built up a tolerance to nicotine through smoking because of their size.

Numerous animal studies have shown that administration of nicotine during childhood and adolescence produces long-lasting changes in brain structure and function, as well as behavioral changes, that are not seen when nicotine is administered to adults,” said Neal Benowitz, Professor of Medicine, Psychiatry and Biopharmaceutical Sciences at University of California San Francisco in the report’s press release. Thus the brain of a child or adolescent is particularly vulnerable to long-lasting adverse neurobehavioral effects of nicotine exposure.”

The meager pay and harmful conditions add to the arduous labor. Boys and girls do the same work as adults, bundling tobacco, spraying pesticides and fertilizer, and tilling the fields. Children wake up at as early as 4 a.m to work, are provided one meal per day, and can have their pay docked if they fail to meet quotas. They often suffer sexual and physical abuse from their supervisors. Many have complained of having nightmares due to emotional stress.

On paper, Malawi has tried to mitigate the child labor violations. The minimum age for employment is 14, including protections for children against economic exploitation. But despite signing international labor ratifications, budgeting domestic funds towards education and awareness, the problem still persists.

Last week, President Bingu wa Mutharika expelled foreign companies for buying tobacco below agreed-upon prices. But the government seems more occupied with the bottom line than workers’ welfare.

These [tobacco companies] connived to deliberately frustrate the policy of this government to improve the welfare of our people through better prices of tobacco,” Mutharik said, the Associated Press reported. They have been sabotaging the Malawi economy and have been harming the very people who grow tobacco for them to buy.”

Selling tobacco at their actual prices generates more income for the country, but workers hardly ever share the revenue. A better way for Malawi’s government to improve the welfare” of the people would be to enforce labor laws and regulations — especially those aimed at helping children.

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Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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