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British American Tobacco and Imperial aim to strike out claims by impoverished Malawi farmers

Tobacco company giants are hoping to have a serious legal claim against them by farmers in Malawi struck out this week.

Posted on 19 May 2021

The BAT and Imperial application to have the farmers’ legal claim struck out by the High Court will be heard 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.

Represented by law firm Leigh Day, the farmers 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. As BAT and Imperial know, or ought to know, 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. Tobacco farmers are only paid after harvest, if at all, but after their farming costs and loans have been deducted from their minimal wages they can be left in a vicious circle of indebtedness.

Their 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 say the impoverished farmers do not have any basis for alleging that any of them grew tobacco that the companies purchased.

Leigh Day and the farmers say their claims are well grounded, despite the difficulties they have faced in trying to obtain the evidence to establish precisely which companies acquired the tobacco leaves they had grown. The tobacco industry in Malawi is deliberately shrouded in secrecy, which the claimants allege is for commercial reasons and to avoid scrutiny of anti-competitive and unlawful practices.

BAT and Imperial limit public information about companies within their groups and 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.”

Meet the legal team

Martyn Day

Martyn Day

Martyn is the joint founder of the firm and is the senior partner

Oliver Holland
Corporate accountability Modern slavery

Oliver Holland

Oliver specialises in international cases involving multinational corporations where environmental harm or human rights abuses have been alleged

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Leigh Day represents people from around the world in fighting for their rights against corporations and governments. We have secured justice for tens of thousands of women, men and children

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