Thousands of children in Malawi are having to work in the tobacco fields in order to help their families to survive, according to a damning report by Al Jazeera. The children (all under fourteen years old) not only miss out on much of their education as a result of this labour, but their health is also jeapordised through the handling of tobacco, a highly toxic product, as well as pesticides, some of which are banned in the global North.

Tobacco corporations like British American Tobacco Company and Philip Morris make massive profits as a result of the  cheap labour in Malawi, which is the fifth biggest producer of tobacco in the world and the cheapest. Prices are decided at an auction attended by agents for the big corporations and farmers have no say over the price. Moreover many have to take out loans to buy the fertiliser for the crop, and sometimes the sale of the tobacco covers little more than the loans, so that they are trapped in extreme poverty. In order to make ends meet they have to use children to help bring in the crop, which is a very labour intensive process.

Teachers in Malawi earn about $50 a month, a sum which has depreciated  in the last period due to inflation. This has been caused in large measure by what the World Bank refers to as 'tough but critical structural reforms' - a 50% devalulation of the currency followed by its flotation. Teachers in Malawi have to cope with class sizes unimaginable in the North - over 100 pupils in a class is not uncommon and in appalling conditions. 

Child labour is common throughout the global South, but what makes this situation particularly revolting is the hypocrisy of the tobacco corporations and their so-called 'corporate social responsibility' portfolios. The tobacco firms fund a project called 'Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco-growing' (ECLT), which amongst other things puts some money into schools in the country. As a Malawian campaigner comments on the Al Jazeera programme: "To ease their consciences, that's why they have this kind of stuff. To say they are fighting child labour. And when they sell their own products ... the profits that they make, what they give out in social responsibility to these organisations is nothing at all compared to what they make." 

Of course if these companies were actually interested in eliminating child labour, all they would have to do would be to pay farmers and labourers a price for their work which would enable them to feed and care for their children. It is the same kind of hypocrisy which is writ large at the World Bank, which purports to be promoting a better world, while organising with its brother organisation the International Monetary Fund to make the global South a good place to 'do business'. We await with interest the plans generated by the oligarchs, the neo-liberal politicians and their hangers on at the World Economic Forum next week - tag line: 'committed to improving the state of the world.' Try telling that to the child labourers of Malawi.