Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Kondwani Nankhumwa has played down the recent decision by the United States of America (USA) Government to subject Malawi tobacco to strict scrutiny over suspected use of child labour.
Speaking in Lilongwe yesterday on the sidelines of the 2019 Tobacco Industry Conference, the minister said “there is nothing to worry about” because Malawi has argued its case before the US Government officials.
Nankhumwa said 80 percent of tobacco grown in Malawi is free from both child and forced labour.
He said: “There is nothing to worry about. We continue to export our tobacco to America, but what they [the US] are talking about are just compliance issues which we are still discussing… It’s a chicken and egg situation.”
The minister was reacting to a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Withhold Release Order (WRO) on tobacco from Malawi early this month, allowing it to detain imported goods believed to have been produced with forced labour.
Following the WRO, shipments arriving in USA are first detained at the port of entry before being subjected to heavy scrutiny or screening by authorities and ensure that importers prove to the US authorities that tobacco from Malawi is not produced with child labour which is prohibited under US law.
But in the interview, Nankhumwa assured tobacco growers and all Malawians that the country is still exporting the green gold to the US despite the WRO in force.
He said 80 percent of the tobacco grown in Malawi is produced under contract or integrated production system (IPS); hence, free from the alleged child and forced labour.
Nankhumwa said Malawi is currently grappling to eliminate cases related to child labour within the auction system of growing tobacco, which accounts for 20 percent of production.
Malawi tobacco industry saw the emergence of IPS in 2012, popularly known as contract farming which among other objectives aimed at producing compliant tobacco crop in a sustainable manner.
Last week, Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development held a consultative meeting with tobacco industry stakeholders, including officials from ministries of Industry, Trade and Tourism; Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation; Labour, Skills and Innovation as well as representatives from US Embassy. During the meeting, Malawi presented its position.
The WRO, if sustained, could affect Malawi’s total revenue from tobacco, currently dominating the country’s export revenue buffer.
In the 2018/19 marketing season, the industry is panting with low earnings from the green gold at auction floors level, which have gone down to about $237 million (about K180 billion as compared to $337.5 million (about K256 billion) realised in the 2017/18 marketing season.
Tobacco industry sources contend that the decision by the US Government puts at stake about 8 million kilogrammes of tobacco which is destined for the US every year, valued at $29 million (about K22 billion), based on the past six-year average.
At press time yesterday, the US Embassy in Lilongwe had not responded to our questionnaire seeking America’s fresh position on the matter, which has sent shivers to many tobacco growers whose livelihood solely depends on the cash crop.
Earlier yesterday, National Association of Smallholder Farmers in Malawi (Nasfam) chief executive officer Betty Chinyamunyamu said the association is rolling out a number of initiatives to curb issues of child labour.
She cited active participation of most of its members in IPS programmes with tobacco buyers.
Last week, Tobacco Association of Malawi (Tama) chief executive officer Felix Thole, whose association is Malawi’s oldest tobacco growers’ body, also expressed shock over US Government decision to be strict on Malawi tobacco exports to that country.
He said Malawi has ‘hugely’ invested in the fight against child labour practices.
Tobacco Commission (TC) corporate planning and development manager Hellings Nason told yesterday’s meeting that Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a collection of 17 global goals set in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly, targets elimination of child labour by the year 2025.
Tobacco remains Malawi’s main foreign exchange earner, contributing at least 60 percent of earnings and also accounting for at least 25 percent of tax revenue.