Two large UK tobacco companies failed to persuade the high court to bring a case against them alleging that they are responsible for the exploitation of Malawian farming families and child labor for profit.
British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco deny the allegations. They argued that Malawian families could not prove that the tobacco they grew ended up in their cigarettes.
The farmers’ lawyers said they had repeatedly asked the companies for proof that they had not purchased tobacco from their customers, but no documents had been disclosed to them.
In superior court, Judge Martin Spencer said the companies’ request to dismiss the case had been “ill-conceived.” The judge said the farmers’ lawyers were not required to offer evidence at the beginning of a legal action, only when it was a 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.
The families are trafficked from southern Malawi to tobacco-producing regions in the north, their lawyers allege in Leigh Day. Once there, it is said, they have to build their own houses with the branches and work seven days a week in the fields. They receive a small portion of corn each day and largely get by by borrowing money until harvest time, at the end of the season, when they are paid for the harvest.
Loans and farm supply costs are deducted and some end up in debt, lawyers say. Families do not have money to hire labor, so the whole family, including children up to three years old, works in the fields.
The lawyers argue that the working conditions violate the definition of forced labor, illegal compulsory labor and exploitation under Malawian law. They also say they violate the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, article 14 of the European convention on human rights and the International Labor Organization definition of forced labor. They say that companies have become unfairly rich.
In their literature, companies claim that they can trace where their tobacco comes from “down to the farm level” and monitor conditions on those farms.
However, in his view, the judge referred to the correspondence in which BAT admitted that “traceability down to the farm level” did not actually mean that it could trace the tobacco back to individual farmers working in their separate fields.
Martyn Day, Senior Partner at Leigh Day, said: “BAT and Imperial make millions of pounds in profit each year and our customers believe that much of this profit is due to the dire conditions that are present in their supply chains, which use impoverished families grow tobacco and pay them a pittance for doing so.
“It is not surprising that BAT and Imperial tried to get the court to dismiss these serious claims against them. We are pleased that the court has agreed with our clients that they have a moot case that must be heard by the court. “
Oliver Holland, Partner at Leigh Day, said: “Once again, we see that the information that multinational companies provide in their corporate materials regarding human rights and environmental issues is misleading and false. This is the information that shareholders look at when they decide to invest in these companies. Cases like these are needed to expose these falsehoods.
“We are now eager to see these claims go to trial so that our clients can get some justice and end the slavery conditions in which our clients are forced to grow tobacco.”
An Imperial spokesperson said they could not comment further because the litigation was ongoing, “apart from reiterating that we will continue to defend the claim.”
BAT said it had “a long-standing commitment to respecting 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 cannot comment further while this case continues. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism