The unionization of informal workers: Transforming Malawi's tea and coffee sectors

Article | 20 October 2023
In Malawi, a groundbreaking movement is taking shape. It's the unionization of informal workers, an initiative that has made significant headway in the tea and coffee sectors, all while addressing critical issues such as child labour and gender-based violence.

The journey towards unionizing informal workers in Malawi has united a diverse group of stakeholders. Leading the charge are the National Confederation of Cooperative Societies of Gold Pans of Mali, the Chamber of Mines, Decentralized Communities, Local Social Development Service, and the National Directorate of Geology and Mines (DNGM). Together, they set out to revolutionize the informal sectors of tea and coffee production, with a two-fold aim: eradicating child labour and improving the working conditions of smallholder farmers.

Unionization campaigns under ACCEL Africa began in 2022. Initially, the spotlight was on the tea sector. Still, it didn't take long before the initiative expanded its reach to encompass coffee-growing communities in three targeted districts.

The organizers played a pivotal role, with their tireless efforts resulting in the recruitment of over 4,800 new members since March 2022. These new members consisted of 2,987 males and 1,831 females.

Empowering through awareness and education

The heart of the unionization initiative lay in creating awareness and educating the workers about their rights, especially concerning child labour, and the potential benefits of joining a union. This transformative process began to shift the way informal workers viewed themselves – from mere laborers to rights-asserting workers. Workers began actively participating in discussions about pricing of tea and coffee, labour laws, and other issues that previously seemed far removed from their daily lives.

This shift in mindset has empowered them to collectively negotiate for better working conditions and advocate for their rights.

A movement gaining momentum

The success of this initiative has not only impacted the tea and coffee sectors but has also provoked interest among workers in other supply chains to unionize. This growing enthusiasm signifies the potential for the unionization movement to spread across rural areas in Malawi.

Like any transformative movement, the unionization initiative in Malawi faced its fair share of challenges. Employer resistance and the need for mechanisms to resolve disputes have emerged as key hurdles. Despite these obstacles, several enabling factors have bolstered the project's success. These include a supportive policy and regulatory framework, comprehensive capacity building, collaboration with governmental bodies, the involvement of local structures, and adherence to international conventions on workers' rights.

The journey of unionizing informal workers in Malawi not only offers a replicable and sustainable model but also stands as an inspirational story for other countries and sectors. By uniting stakeholders, fostering awareness campaigns, deploying dedicated organizers, and providing educational materials, this initiative has become key of the success of the ACCEL Africa project in Malawi.