UK tobacco firms fail in bid to have Malawi child labour case struck out
Two big UK tobacco companies have failed to persuade the high court to strike out a case against them that alleges they are responsible for the exploitation of Malawian farming families and child labour in their drive for profits.
British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco deny the allegations. They argued that the Malawian families could not prove that the tobacco they grew had ended up in their cigarettes.
The farmers’ lawyers said they had repeatedly asked the companies for proof that they had not bought tobacco from their clients, but no documents had been disclosed to them.
In the high court, Mr Justice Martin Spencer said the companies’ application to strike out the case had been “misconceived”. The judge said lawyers for the farmers were not required to offer proof at the beginning of a legal action, only when it came to full trial.
The case follows the publication of a Guardian investigation in June 2018 that revealed the plight of children forced to work in the fields.
Families are trafficked from southern Malawi to tobacco-growing regions in the north, their lawyers at Leigh Day allege. Once there, it is said, they have to build their own homes from branches and work seven days a week in the fields. They receive a small portion of maize each day and get by largely by borrowing money until harvest time at the end of the season, when they are paid for the crop.
Loans and the costs of farming supplies are deducted and some end up in debt, the lawyers say. The families have no money to hire labour, so the entire family, including children as young as three, work the fields.
The lawyers argue the conditions of work breach the definition of forced labour, unlawful compulsory labour and exploitation under Malawian law. They also say they breach the UK Modern Slavery Act, article 14 of the European convention on human rights, and the International Labour Organization definition of forced labour. They say the companies have been unjustly enriched.
In their literature, the companies claim they can trace where their tobacco comes from “down to farm level” and they monitor conditions on those farms.
However, in his judgment, the judge referred to correspondence in which BAT admitted that “traceability down to the farm level” did not actually mean it could trace tobacco to individual farmers working their separate fields.
Martyn Day, a senior partner at Leigh Day, said: “BAT and Imperial make millions of pounds in profit each year and our clients believe much of this profit is down to the awful conditions that are present in their supply chains, which use impoverished families to farm the tobacco and pay them a pittance to do so.
“It is not surprising that BAT and Imperial tried to get these very serious claims against them thrown out by the court. We are pleased that the court agreed with out clients that they have an arguable case which should be heard by the court.”
Oliver Holland, a partner at Leigh Day, said: “Once again we see the information the multinational companies provide in their corporate materials in relation to human rights and environmental issues is misleading and untrue. This is the information that shareholders look at when deciding to invest in these companies. It takes cases like these to expose these untruths.
“We are now keen for these claims to proceed on to trial so that our clients can get some justice and put an end to the slave-like conditions in which our clients are forced to grow tobacco.”
A spokesperson for Imperial said they could not comment further because the litigation was ongoing, “other than to reiterate that we will continue to defend the claim”.
BAT said it had “a longstanding commitment to respect the human rights of our employees, the people we work with and the communities in which we operate. We will continue to vigorously defend the claims and we are unable to provide further comment while this case continues.”