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)

Living with the consequences of slavery

Isabel Arce Zelada

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

i.d.arce-zelada-2020@hull.ac.uk

Jen Nghishitende

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

n.j.nghishitende-2020@hull.ac.uk

Mavuto K. Banda

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

m.k.banda-2020@hull.ac.uk

Five months in, our three newest PhD students, Isabel Arce Zelada, Jen Nghishitende and Mavuto Banda, reflect on their collective agenda and their individual research projects so far.

We started our PhDs in the midst of a pandemic and as a cluster we have had little opportunity to work together and understand how our projects interlink. However, through various zoom calls and physically distant interactions we are beginning to understand where we belong in this cluster as a team as well as individually. As a cohesive unit we found that we each speak about the way various institutions constantly ask groups of people with different experiences of exploitation to present themselves as victims. This establishes a uniform ‘humanitarian’ response to problems that involve a multiplicity of experiences, and in the process creates and recreates the model of what a victim is and what they need. At the core of all our projects are individuals who constantly have to prove themselves to be victims in order to get some level of assistance. As such, we are, as a collective, critically investigating what we mean when we say ‘victim’ and what solutions we need to achieve to assist this group of individuals. 

Isabel

In asylum processes the idea that the nation-state is providing safety to a person seeking persecution has a long and complicated history. As an institution asylum has always led to wide networks of power in which many other institutions are involved. In the UK, the rise of nationalistic sentiments, detention centres and hostile environments have led to an awkward paradox in which the UK saves the asylum seeker, yet also condemns them for a role in the demise of the British nation. At the same time, the asylum system keeps its humanitarian role by supposedly saving the true refugee. I am therefore researching the many violent tactics of distrust and retraumatization that are present in the UK asylum process. 

Jen

My research deals with women and children who have survived modern slavery in the UK and as such, I will be focusing on those people who have already either been accepted or rejected as ‘victims’ by the UK Home Office. In recent years, the spotlight has been placed on survivors’ accounts, their tales of slavery and their eventual escape or rescue; scant attention has been placed on what happens to survivors after slavery, especially in the long term. My research will therefore examine the long term trajectories of survivors in the UK, all the while looking at the laws, policies, and processes that are in place to assist them with rehabilitation and reintegration into society in order to  regain their rights and dignity.

Mavuto

My research looks from a different perspective at the children that have become the victims of modern slavery. In adhering to Fairtrade standards and safeguarding their corporate image, Malawi’s commercial agriculture has banned the employment of under-18 year olds in its plantations, as it seeks to prevent and rescue children from the evils of ‘child labour’. Once the work of under-18 year olds in commercial tea and tobacco plantations had been defined as ‘child labour’ this ban became necessary. My study therefore aims at exploring the impact of ‘child labour’ bans in commercial tea and tobacco estates with respect to youth employment and livelihoods in rural communities of Malawi. It will try to understand the socio-cultural dynamics of life in Malawi, and how communities view children’s participation in the labour market.

Henry Ford once said, ‘Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.’ Our continual working relationship will therefore lead to the collective success of our cluster as well as our individual successes in our research projects. We also look forward to hopefully meeting and working with everyone soon in person at the Wilberforce Institute. Our shared hope for the future is that victimhood, with the pressures of presenting oneself as the perfect victim, is scrutinized, and the assistance that is needed is given without requesting trauma as payment for it.

Protective medical mask on laptop. https://www.flickr.com/photos/156445661@N02/49799314177