Conference Report: Climate change is driving modern slavery

Saphia Fleury

PhD student, Falling Through the Net Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

S.Fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

The University of Hull is in a unique position to consider the effects of climate change as a driver of modern slavery, having two institutes dedicated to the study of these distinct but interconnected topics. On 11 October 2021 the Wilberforce Institute hosted a virtual conference to formulate an holistic approach to understanding this nexus. The event was supported by Anti-Slavery International and co-organised by Chris O’Connell of Dublin City University. Professor Trevor Burnard, the Wilberforce Institute’s director, welcomed the conference as ‘the start of several conversations about climate change and modern slavery’. Hull’s Energy and Environment Institute, a world-leader in researching sustainable solutions to climate change, was also represented at the event by its director, Dan Parsons. Professor Parsons noted how the UK in particular has a ‘moral responsibility to act’, given that as a country it has the fourth largest total historical cumulative CO2 emissions, and that much of the nation’s wealth has been built on a combination of slavery and high-emitting industrial practices.

Throughout the day, academics, practitioners and people with lived experiences of environmental change and slavery came together to share their research, practical solutions, and hopes for the future. Key-note speaker, the Bolivian Indigenous rights leader Wilma Mendoza Miro, described how various exploitative and ecologically damaging practices are encroaching on Indigenous lands. She concluded that a new approach to policy-making is urgently needed – one which puts human life, not wealth-creation, at the centre of decision-making.

Jasmine O’Connor OBE, the CEO of Anti-Slavery International, described how her organisation recognises the potential of climate change ‘to drive slavery on an unimaginable scale’. Anti-Slavery International is pushing for a just and fair transition to a carbon neutral world, which puts decent jobs at the heart of the transition.

Other participants described various exploitative labour contexts around the world, from highly polluting brick kilns in South Asia, to fishing off the coast of Ghana, to deforestation in Brazil. The theme of climate-induced migration and its risks came up numerous times. While slavery is often considered a problem of the past, and climate change a threat in the future, both issues are converging in the present day to create an ecological and human disaster.

The conference concluded with participants signing up to a letter directed at the President Delegate of the COP26 climate change meeting in Glasgow, highlighting the relationship between contemporary slavery, environmental destruction and climate change, and calling for a just transition.

The full report of the conference, including summaries of all the presentations and further discussion of the issues at stake, is now available as a free PDF here

Caption: Melbourne Global climate strike on Sep 20, 2019.


Fieldwork: a time to learn from the ‘lived experiences of children and families’ in tea and tobacco communities

Mavuto K. Banda

PhD student, Living with the Consequences of Slavery Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

M.K.Banda-2020@hull.ac.uk

Malawi is an agriculture-based economy where tea and tobacco contribute about 70% of total annual export earnings, 60% of which comes from tobacco alone. As one of the countries that ratified the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Convention 138 on Minimum Age of Employment, and Convention 182 on Worst Forms of Child Labour, the Malawi Government has put in place policies and legal instruments to operationalise its international obligations and committed itself to combat child labour. According to the Employment Act (2000), the minimum age for entry into employment in Malawi is 14; however, work in tea and tobacco production is considered hazardous to children, and so the minimum age of employment is pegged at 18.

Agriculture is the single largest employer, sustaining livelihoods mainly through subsistence farming and part-time work locally known as ganyu in addition to jobs provided by commercial estates such as tea and tobacco. Over 84% of Malawians live in rural areas and agriculture employs 85% of working males and 94% of females.

Led by multinationals and supported by the government and its local and international stakeholders (NGOs and UN agencies), Malawi has implemented interventions to keep children from tea and tobacco work since the early 2000s. Children are banned from working in commercial tea and tobacco estates, as work in these sectors is considered hazardous and detrimental to children’s growth and development by ILO standards. These bans were and are still predominantly upheld by players in tea and tobacco as a direct response to accountability pressures from consumers in Europe and North America, where most of the tea and tobacco exports from Malawi are destined. Further pressure comes from international organisations and UN agencies such as the ILO and UNICEF.

However, in recent years, reports of children’s continued participation, especially in tobacco production, shocked the international community and threatened the country’s export earnings and by extension, its economy. In 2019, the US government banned the importation of tobacco from Malawi, which was thought to have been produced using exploitative children’s work.

For commercial tea and tobacco estates, and indeed for the country, banning children’s work from tea and tobacco – probably the most outbound globally connected value chains in the Malawian economy – lowers reputational risks, which appear to be responding to consumer demands for accountability. However, little is known about the impact these bans are having on the lived experiences of children who no longer have the opportunity to work in commercial tea and tobacco estates.

This is what my study, therefore, aims to examine – the impact on under-18-year-olds of the ban from working in tea and tobacco plantations. I will be asking the following set of guiding questions:

1) To what extent have the universal minimum age policy interventions contributed to the elimination of child labour in tea and tobacco-growing communities?

2) How have the universalised minimum age policies and related interventions influenced the lives of children, their families and their communities?

3) How could interventions relating to child labour elimination in tea and tobacco-growing communities protect and empower children, families and communities?

I have decided to use the following investgative techniques to collect data: I will conduct key informant interviews targeting service providers and community leaders; set up  focus group discussions; and create survey questionnaires targeting household members. The study will be conducted in the Southern Region districts of Thyolo and Mulanje (for tea production) and Zomba (for tobacco production).

I am grateful to the Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST)’s Center for Innovation and Industrial Research (CIIR) in Thyolo District for offering to host me during the period of fieldwork. Their various capacity-building initiatives will enrich my research experience and further my career development. In addition, the stay at MUST will ensure that I have an office and access to the internet when I am not in the field for reporting and reading. In turn, I will dedicate four hours per week to any work assigned to me by the CIIR.

I now have the ethics approval from the Faculty of Science and Engineering (FoSE) at the University of Hull and am in the process of applying for ethics approval  with MUST’s research committee. Once I get the MUST research ethics approval, I can begin my fieldwork with stakeholder mapping and consultations before field data collection proper begins. With over 60% of research costs secured, I am in the process of applying for the shortfall from the National Commission of Science and Technology (NCST)’s Small Grant Scheme, designed to support postgraduate students in research.

All in all, I am very excited to enter the field data collection phase of my PhD studies. With the support I am getting both at the University of Hull and MUST, I hope this will be successful fieldwork.


Caption: Mavuto K. Banda in Mulanje tea fields, Southern Malawi (Source: Mavuto K. Banda, 2016)