Tobacco giants aim to strike out claims by Malawi farmers

Tobacco company giants, British American Tobacco and Imperial, want a court in the United Kingdom to throw out a case in which the tobacco companies are accused of exploiting Malawian farmers and their children.

The BAT and Imperial application to have the farmers’ legal claim struck out by the High Court will be heard in the United Kingdom by Mr Justice Martin Spencer over two days from Wednesday 19 May to Thursday 20 May 2021.

The claim against British American Tobacco (BAT), Imperial Brands and their subsidiaries, was filed in the High Court in London in December 2020.

Several thousand of Malawi’s poorest tenant tobacco farmers, their wives, children and other family members allege that the tobacco companies are liable in negligence and have been unjustly enriched because the companies’ actions, for the sake of maximising profits, have resulted over many years in their systemic exploitation.

The farmers, who are being represented by law firm Leigh Day, say BAT and Imperial facilitate unlawful and dangerous conditions, in which they, having been trafficked from their villages, have to build their own homes, live on a daily small portion of maize, work 6am to midnight seven days a week, and have to borrow money to be able to feed their families throughout the season.

According to Leigh Day, the tobacco firms know, or ought to know, that the farmers have no choice but to make their own children work from the age of three just to achieve the output needed to secure a marketable harvest.

The law firm say conditions of work amount to child labour, forced labour, unlawful compulsory labour and exploitation under Malawian law. They also breach the UK Modern Slavery Act, Article 14 of the ECHR and the International Labour Organisation’s Worst Forms of Child Labour and Forced Labour Conventions.

BAT and Imperial  argue that the impoverished farmers do not have any basis for alleging that any of them grew tobacco that the companies purchased.

However, the companies have persistently refused to release information to Leigh Day about how they can be clear that Malawian tobacco is not sourced from the farmers involved in the claim.

Leigh Day senior partner, Martyn Day, said:

“The heart of the claim is that two of the largest tobacco companies in the world cynically exploited impoverished tobacco farmers from Malawi and their children. It is hardly surprising therefore that those companies are at the High Court trying to block the claims getting to a full trial. Fortunately, the two Defendant companies are based here in Britain giving our courts jurisdiction to adjudicate these claims. I am optimistic the Judge will see this manoeuvre for what it is and allow the claims to progress toward a full trial.”

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