A bitter brew: Malawi’s tea plantations

It’s 07.00. At the start of his eight-hour shift, tea picker Stephano James is already tired, but he is motivated by the prospect of meeting the day’s 44 kg tea leaf target.

With no protective clothing or equipment other than a wicker basket tied with rope to his back, 23-year-old Stephano works through the early morning drizzle, picking the tender green tea leaves with his bare hands and stuffing them into the basket.

The tea is then processed before it is packed off for export, mostly to the UK and South Africa where 90 per cent of Malawi’s tea ends up.

It’s exhausting, high-intensity work which requires a steady hand to pick the leaves correctly and stamina to stay on your feet in the fields all day, but like many other tea pickers, Stephano still manages to hit his target before the end of his shift, giving him the opportunity to earn extra money for every additional kilo he produces.

Stephano works at Limbuli Estate in the southern tea growing district of Mulanje six days a week.

Owned by Eastern Produce Malawi (EPM), the country’s largest tea producer, it’s a subsidiary the world’s second largest private tea company, Cameilla Plc, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Stephano is contracted to work 48 hours per week but he works overtime in order to supplement his basic fortnightly salary of 5,100 Malawi kwacha (11.86 euro).

“With the rising cost of living, I have to work overtime every day. Failing to do that would mean starvation for my family as the cost of maize is higher than my basic salary,” said Stephano.

While Stephano usually reports to work on an empty stomach since breakfast is a luxury that he cannot afford, he doesn’t rush to take his meal when the lunch bell rings when Equal Times visits Limbuli.

The company provides meals at lunch, which is the only privilege afforded to the pickers who are not entitled to accommodation, let alone medical assistance since they are recruited on a seasonal basis.

“The flour that they are currently using to make the nsima [a thick maize flour porridge that is the staple food in Malawi] is made from rotten maize so it tastes awful. However, we have to eat it until the stock is depleted,” said Stephano.

Despite the difficult working conditions, Stephano just like the many other secondary school dropouts surrounding the estates, cannot go anywhere for employment.

There are few jobs available in Malawi –definitive unemployment statistics are hard to come by, but data produced by the International Labour Organization (ILO) reveals that Malawi has one of the highest rates of working poverty in the world, with 60 per cent of the population earning less than two US dollars per day. Meanwhile, 70 per cent of young Malawians aged between 15 and 29 are employed in the informal sector.

In Mulanje, the tea plantations are the main employers and even if Stephano left the Limbuli Estate, he would be unlikely to find better pay or working conditions elsewhere.


A tea monopoly

The World Trade Organisation ranks Malawi as the second largest producer of tea in Africa, after Kenya. Producing 2.3 million kg at the end of June 2013, Malawi accounts for 10 per cent of the continent’s total tea production.

The World Trade Organisation estimates that the industry contributes to 8.7 per cent of the country’s agricultural export earnings, earning 11 million US dollars as of end of June 2013, according to the Reserve Bank of Malawi.

However, low wages are endemic amongst Malawi’s tea workers.

With 84.5 per cent of Malawi’s labour force employed in agriculture, the tea industry employs around 50,000 seasonal workers at the peak of the harvest season from October to April. At the end of the season, the pickers are made redundant and have to resort to petty trading in order to survive.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that 18,799 hectares of land are used for the cultivation of tea in Malawi’s 44 estates which are owned by 11 international companies.

EPM nearly half of the country’s tea estates – 21 in Mulanje and the neighbouring district of Thyolo – and the company’s website boasts of its commitment to corporate social responsibility but when Equal Times asked for an interview to discuss the pathetic conditions discovered at Limbuli Estate, the management refused.

The absence of a strong trade union in the sector gives undue power and influence to the Tea Association of Malawi – of which the estate owners are major players. This allows them to dictate tea picker wages and also to limit workers’ freedom of association and collective bargaining.

While there are two trade unions representing the tea pickers – the Plantation and Agriculture Workers Union (PAWU) and the Tea, Coffee and Macadamia Workers Union (TECOMA) – in reality, the two unions do not work together to advocate for better conditions in the industry but instead compete with each other for members.

This is a situation that worries the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU), Malawi’s national trade union centre.

"It’s a sad reality that the trade unions in the tea industry have not been united. This has created a situation that has negatively impacted on bargaining for fair working conditions for those who fall under the lowest paid category,” said MCTU President Muwake Chauluka.

However, Chauluka praised the unions for playing an important role in eliminating child labour in the tea estates.


Living conditions

Equal Times spent time in three tea picker households in Mulanje and we discovered that aside from economic deprivation, many tea workers are infected with HIV/Aids as some women living in the plantations engage in transactional sex to supplement their meager incomes.

In addition, the Malawi Tea Research Project by the Malawi Centre for Advice Research and Education (commissioned by Dutch non-profit orgnisation SOMO) indicates that harassment and sexual discrimination remains a challenge in all tea estates.

Speaking in a recent interview with Equal Times, Malawi’s Minister of Labour Eunice Makangala said that the government recognises the challenges faced by low-income earners and has since almost doubled the daily minimum wage for unskilled workers from MK 317 (80 US cents) to MK 600 (1.60 US dollars) a day.

“We recognise the hardships being faced by low-income earners and as a government we are working towards a fair wage that will bring dignity to them,” she said.

A report released earlier this year by Oxfam and the Ethical Tea Partnership on Understanding Wage Issues in the Tea Industry warned that regional and government policies to maximise rural employment often end up locking workers into low wages.

According to Chauluka, finding a solution to issue of low wages and poor working conditions in the tea industry is a battle that the MCTU will continue to fight.

“The MCTU recognises the economic dilemma in which tea pickers are placed with poor pay, and as workers’ rights activists we will continue to engage with estate owners and the government so that these workers are treated with dignity and offered a fair wage,” he said.