A bitter harvest – The scourge of HIV in Malawi’s tea estates


Thyolo – Tea is one of Malawi’s major foreign currency earners, following behind tobacco and fast outpacing the revenues generated by sugar. The plant is grown in the picturesque rolling green farmlands of southern region hillsides of Thyolo and Mulanje districts, the country’s two main tea-growing areas.

With a crop estimated at 42 000 tonnes a year, Malawi is Africa's second-largest tea producer behind Kenya. Commercial farmers account for 93 percent of Malawi's tea production, while some 6 000 small growers are responsible for the balance of seven percent.

With around 80 percent of the people of Malawi employed in the agricultural sector, the importance of tea to the economy cannot be underestimated.

The country’s agriculture sector is divided into the small-scale subsistence sector – which produces about 90 percent of the staple maize crop – and the estates sector, which mainly grows tea, coffee, sugar and cotton for export markets.

Malawi's tea is largely exported to Britain and South Africa. Ten percent of GDP comes from estate agriculture.

The estate sector depends on tenant farmer or seasonal labour and thousands of workers are employed to plant tea and pluck leaves and stuff them in baskets strapped on their backs before taking them to factories for selection, treatment and processing into consumable commodities for both the local and international markets.

Behind the world’s favourite brew

The tea industry employs over 40 000 estate workers and 7 000 smallholder farmers. In total, some 300 000 Malawians directly rely on tea for a major part of their income in the southern region of the country, according to the Tea Association of Malawi.

However, climate change and HIV and AIDS threaten to derail the economic input of the plant.

Absenteeism because of AIDS-related illnesses has contributed to low production. Conforzi Tea Estate is one of the many tea estates that cover the rolling hillsides of Thyolo District. Factory engineer, Reggie Nthini, says the estates’ tea revenues have in recent years taken a beating.

“Like any other sector in Malawi, HIV/AIDS has hit our sector a lot. A lot of our labour force has died and this has affected our output,” he says.

However, Nthini says his estate has established an HIV and AIDS Workplace Policy that disseminates relevant information to communities and encourages voluntary counseling and testing.

In addition, the estate provides life-prolonging anti-retroviral (ARVs) drugs at the company clinic as well as at the district hospital.

It is said that one in four of Thyolo's 560 000 people is HIV positive, and the high infection rate is partly blamed on poverty and cultural beliefs.

Chisomo Msyani, the Thyolo District Hospital ART Co-ordinator, says culture, poverty, early marriages, teenage pregnancies, high illiteracy rates, and the high divorce rates in Thyolo District contribute to the prevalence of HIV.

Davis Kavalo, the Thyolo  District AIDS Co-ordinator, adds that eradicating poverty, achieving universal primary education, empowering women, eradicating harmful cultural practices and combating HIV and AIDS are the shared goals of different stakeholders who would want to ensure the social and economic survival of the district.

“Making these goals a reality, however, depends largely on their ownership by local communities and on serious efforts to sustain a development enabling environment,” he expounds.

Tea testing employee at Conforzi, 24-year-old Judith Munde, a single mother of three children, says low wages and stumpy economic empowerment of women are contributing to the vulnerability and high HIV and AIDS prevalence rates at the estate.

She says some of the workers at the Conforzi’s sprawling holdings come from within and outside the district. Many of them, as in colonial times, come alone and work here for many years thus making them vulnerable to engaging in casual and risky sexual relationships.

But Nthini denies suggestions that low wages contribute to the prevalence of transactional sex among tea estate workers.

“Conforzi is an equal opportunity employer and in its quest to empower women of the district and surrounding areas, it has a number of female employees who are paid the same amounts of wages as their male counterparts,” he says.

Conforzi Estate is one of the oldest and biggest tea producers in the southern region of Malawi.

In view of high levels of absenteeism due to illnesses, Nthini says, management was very keen to help the situation by introducing an HIV Workplace Policy.

Under the Workplace Place Policy, peer educators talk to their fellow workers about HIV and related issues.

“We examine a typical daily schedule to see how we can create a regular slot where colleagues could have time and feel comfortable to talk about different health issues including HIV,” explains Munde.

Both Munde and Nthini say supplies of condoms are left at different places so that workers can access them without going to the clinic.

However, Munde says there are no female condoms at the estates. 

This, Munde says, could be an issue of stigmatisation. Many people in the area still view with suspicion any woman who carries or keeps female condoms, and thus uptake of these sheaths is very low.

The common belief in the area, it seems, is that a woman who keeps/carries around female condoms is a prostitute.

The Economic Impact of AIDS in Malawi study Futures Group International notes that HIV is different from most other diseases because it strikes people in the most productive age groups.

The study shows that there are two major economic effects: a reduction in the labour supply, and increased costs that affect national economies.

A recent study evaluated the costs of HIV and AIDS on one tea estate.

Overall, the costs related to HIV accounted for 3.4 percent of the estate’s gross profit. 

The costs are determined by the levels of both employee benefits and of skilled labour necessary for production.

The Futures Group International study notes that HIV-related illnesses and deaths of employees affect firms by both increasing expenditure and reducing revenue.

“Expenditures are increased for health care costs, burial fees and training and recruitment of replacement employees.

 Revenues may be decreased because of absenteeism due to illness or attendance at funerals and time spent on training while labour turnover can lead to a less experienced labor force that is less productive,” the study states.

 The tragic collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh earlier this year put a spotlight on the poor pay and working conditions endured by millions of people who make our clothes or grow our food.

A report by Oxfam and the Ethical Tea Partnership (a group of 28 tea companies) shows workers behind the world’s favourite brew are no exception but it also gives us real reason to hope that things are about to change.

For years, companies and NGO have been talking past each other; unable to agree whether workers on tea estates are paid a living wage.

To try get a clear picture a group of organisations including Oxfam, the Ethical Tea Partnership, the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), Unilever, and the certification organisations Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade International and UTZ Certified, commissioned an independent assessment of workers’ pay and benefits on plantations in Malawi, Indonesia and Assam in India. 

The findings made uncomfortable reading for everyone involved.

The report found that despite meeting legal minimum wage requirements the combined value of tea pickers’ pay and benefits in Malawi is around average for the country but only about half the World Bank’s poverty line income of US$2 per person per day.

In Assam, India, tea pickers earn just above the World Bank poverty line and under the average Indian wage. In West Java, Indonesia, pickers’ incomes are well above the poverty line but only a quarter of what the average Indonesian earns. Researchers found a number of deep rooted and complex factors keeping wages low. A key problem is that pay is set for the whole sector – there is no difference in pay from one plantation to the next – and that it is pegged to the legal minimum wage which is often well below the level needed for meet a family’s basic needs.

Other issues include the huge variation in the quality and take up of ‘in-kind’ benefits such as childcare or housing and the fact that workers, particularly women who make up the majority of the workforce, have little say in negotiations over pay.  

It was clear that tea pickers are getting a raw deal. It was equally clear that no one organization can solve these problems alone. Action is needed across the industry.

The good news is that, after seeing the results of the research, all members of the coalition – including the tea companies – now recognise the urgency of the problem and are committed to tackle problem. 

The coalition is now working to raise awareness within the industry and to get more stakeholders involved in tackling the issue including governments, trade unions, retailers and other tea companies. Starting in Malawi, it is also developing a number of national projects to tackle low wages and broader poverty issues for tea communities and inform change across the globe.  

Consumers of certified products can also be reassured that certification organisations have committed to improve the certification process for waged workers so that it requires plantations to gradually increase workers’ wages to the level of a living wage.

This is a great start but it can't end there.

Other factors, which fall outside the scope of this research, must also be tackled if workers are to receive a living wage. This includes the price that retailers, tea companies and ultimately consumers pay for their tea and how it is distributed along the value chain.   – Excerpted from the Oxfam website

November 2013
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