Malawi is a multiparty democracy. Constitutional power is shared between the president and the 193 National Assembly members. On May 21, elections for president, parliament, and local councils were conducted. International observers characterized the elections as competent and professional.
The Malawi Police Service, under the Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security, has responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order. The Malawi Defense Force (MDF) has responsibility for external security. The executive branch sometimes asked the MDF to carry out policing activity. The MDF commander reports directly to the president as commander in chief. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: extrajudicial killings, torture, and arbitrary detention committed by official security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison and detention center conditions; significant acts of corruption; lack of investigation and enforcement in cases of violence against girls and women, including rape and domestic violence, partly due to weak enforcement; trafficking in persons; and criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct.
In some cases the government took steps to prosecute officials who committed abuses, but impunity remained a problem.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right.
Freedom of Expression: In the aftermath of the May tripartite elections, during several weeks in which thousands of citizens protested the results on the streets, the government, through the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA), took at least two separate steps to suppress and curtail freedom of speech.
On June 7, MACRA banned call-in radio shows, justifying this by claiming the shows were a platform for callers to incite the public against the government. On August 6, the government banned all radio stations in the country from live broadcasting of demonstrations when most radio stations suspended regular programming to cover the protests. MACRA stated the broadcasters should install a delay machine to allow sufficient time for it to disapprove prohibited content.
On September 2, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Malawi, a private rights advocacy group, applied to the High Court for an injunction against MACRA regarding its blanket ban of call-in programs on radio stations. MISA Malawi was joined in the application by the Times Media Group, Zodiak Broadcasting Station, and Capital Radio. On September 25, the High Court granted MISA Malawi’s injunction to temporarily lift the ban while the court investigated whether some broadcasters indeed violated the terms of their licenses as alleged by MACRA.
Violence and Harassment: On September 18, in Lilongwe, two journalists, Golden Matonga from the Nation newspaper and Gladys Nthenda from Kulinji.com, were assaulted by demonstrators protesting the May election outcome. The demonstrators who assaulted them believed they were taking photographs for police, despite the two showing their press identity cards.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists sometimes practiced self-censorship, especially at government-owned media outlets such as the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). Government agencies sometimes selectively targeted prominent media houses critical of the government for enforcement actions. On October 18, the Malawi Revenue Authority sealed National Publications Limited offices in Blantyre due to unpaid tax arrears. In contrast, the equally tax-delinquent progovernment MBC owed 4.5 billion Malawian kwacha (MWK) ($5.9 million) in back taxes but operated without any impediment.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government did not always respect these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Security forces sometimes intimidated refugees and asylum seekers. Police routinely detained and returned to the Dzaleka Camp refugees found outside of the camp, including those with proper identity documents. Local citizens often accused refugees of committing various crimes, and this at times resulted in looting of refugee property by community members. During the year UNHCR received no cases of refugees facing forced return to their countries of origin. Sporadic detention of persons of concern who were found outside the camp took place, with others taken to court and fined up to 100,000 MWK ($130), an approach authorities adopted in 2018.
There were multiple reports of so-called survival sex by refugees to obtain income to supplement food rations and other necessities in the Dzaleka Camp. UNHCR also reported gender-based violence and other criminal activities at Dzaleka. Some refugees reported fear of alleged country of origin operatives in Malawi.
In 2018 the MHRC received one complaint of mistreatment at the Dzaleka Camp.
The government continued to ban registration of perceived lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons on the basis that it was against the law. UNHCR continued to advocate for the Ministry of Homeland Security to reverse its decision and consider registration and processing of all arrivals, including LGBTI cases. In the interim UNHCR registered the persons of concern in the database and conducted the mandatory Refugee Status Determination (RSD).
The government cooperated with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern. As of September 30, there were 42,686 asylum seekers and refugees at the Dzaleka Camp in the central region, with an average monthly arrival total of 500 individuals, mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and as of September the government provided protection to more than 42,000 individuals. Asylum seekers primarily came from the Great Lakes Region of Africa. Most of them remained designated as asylum seekers, with fewer than 14,000 recognized as refugees.
On April 12, the government published a gazette notice on group-based determination for asylum seekers from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, in North and South Kivu Provinces, and Katanga Region. As of September the RSD backlog in the country stood at 28,702 of the 42,686 total asylum seeker and refugee population. UNHCR advocated for more efficient refugee status determination procedures to end the backlog. With the implementation of the recognition of refugee status for Congolese citizens, it was expected the backlog would decline to 35 percent by year’s end.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees were subject to an encampment policy that restricted them to the Dzaleka and Luwani refugee camps, the only two officially designated refugee camps. Authorities periodically rounded up and returned to the Dzaleka Camp those who left it.
Employment: In general the government did not allow refugees to seek employment or educational opportunities outside the camp. Most refugees were dependent on donor-funded food assistance. A small number of refugees with professional degrees, especially those with medical training, received permits to pursue employment and other opportunities outside the camp.
Access to Basic Services: UNHCR, NGOs, and the government collaborated to provide most basic services. Refugees had access to education and health-care services through camp schools and clinics, although only 37 percent of school-age refugee children were enrolled in primary and secondary school. The Dzaleka camp housed almost 43,000 persons of concern, creating congestion and a burden on resources and facilities. These overtaxed facilities served both refugees and local communities. A rapid increase in the refugee population and the inability of most refugees to grow food or earn money due to the encampment policy limited the available food and services to that provided by donors through UNHCR and the World Food Program. Shelter and food ration allocations were below recommended levels due to lack of space and insufficient funding.
While local laws and the justice system applied to refugees, access to the justice system was limited by inefficiencies and inadequate resources. With only 13 police officers assigned to the Dzaleka Camp, law enforcement capacity was extremely limited.
For the first time, refugees and asylum seekers were included in the Malawi Development and Growth Strategy III and the 2019–2023 United Nations Development Assistance Framework. On several occasions the country expressed its commitment to implement the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, which aims to integrate refugees into national systems. UNHCR continued to engage the government to accelerate the roll out of the framework, and a joint implementation plan was expected in early 2020.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees; however, no reliable statistics were available.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government through free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There was little criminal or professional accountability for those involved.
The government, in cooperation with donors, continued implementation of an action plan to pursue cases of corruption, review how the “Cashgate” corruption scandal occurred, and introduce internal controls and improved systems to prevent further occurrences. Progress on investigations and promised reforms was slow.
Corruption: The Anti-Corruption Bureau is the agency primarily responsible for investigating and prosecuting cases of official corruption. It also works to educate the civil service and public on anticorruption matters. As of October the bureau reported it completed 94 investigations in the 2018/19 financial year and referred 21 of those cases to prosecutors.
On January 10, one Cashgate trial involving 11 suspects was concluded with 10 of the suspects convicted and one acquitted. The 10 were convicted of money laundering and conspiracy to commit a felony involving 201 million MWK ($264,000) from the former Ministry of Disability and the Department of the Accountant General. On April 16, the High Court sentenced three of the 10 to five years’ imprisonment each, four of the 10 to four years’ imprisonment each, and the last three of the 10 to three years’ imprisonment each.
The state’s eight billion MWK ($10.5 million) corruption case against former president Bakili Muluzi, begun in 2006, remained stalled.
Financial Disclosure: The constitution requires the president, vice president, and members of the cabinet to disclose their assets in writing to the speaker of the National Assembly within three months of being elected or appointed. There is no requirement in law for the speaker to make the declarations public or available to other members of parliament. The law requires officials in 48 categories, ranging from the president, members of parliament, and senior officials down to specific categories of civil servants, including traffic police and immigration officers, to make financial disclosures. Noncompliance is grounds for dismissal, and individuals who knowingly provide inaccurate information may be fined, dismissed, and imprisoned.
In October 2018 the director of Public Officers’ Declarations wrote the president and the speaker of parliament recommending they take disciplinary measures against a cabinet member and members of parliament for failure to comply with asset declaration statutes. No disciplinary measures had been carried out by October.
The declarations are to be accessible to the public upon request, but the director has the authority to deny such requests. Denials may be appealed to the High Court. The Directorate of Assets Declaration made no effort to make the paper-based asset declarations more readily available by, for example, digitizing them.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, training civic educators, advocating changes to existing laws and cultural practices, and investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The MHRC, an independent government-chartered institution, is mandated by the constitution to promote and protect human rights and investigate human rights abuses. Despite its independent leadership, resource shortfalls resulted in a backlog of cases, delayed production of reports, and limited investigation of human rights abuses. Seven MHRC commissioners appointed by the president on March 25 were never sworn in after the ombudsman challenged the legality of the appointments of two of the commissioners. The ombudsman and the law commissioner are ex officio members of the MHRC. As of November the issue remained unresolved, and the MHRC remained without commissioners.
The Office of the Ombudsman is mandated to investigate government officials responsible for human rights and other abuses. The Ombudsman’s Office does not take legal action against government officials but may order administrative action to redress grievances and may recommend prosecution to the director of public prosecution. The office had 21 investigators who were assisted by 11 government interns. During the year more than 4,000 members of the public were reached through ombudsman mobile clinics. During these exercises the office carried out sensitization campaigns with Village Development Committees and Area Development Committees, road shows, and distribution of flyers, T-shirts, and caps. It maintained a website, Facebook page, and an active Twitter account and provided regular updates on its activities.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law allows workers, except for military personnel and police, to form and join trade unions of their choice without previous authorization or excessive requirements. Unions must register with the Registrar of Trade Unions and Employers’ Organizations in the Ministry of Labor, Skills, and Innovation; registration requirements are not onerous, but failure to meet annual reporting requirements may result in cancellation of a union’s registration. The law places some restrictions on the right to collectively bargain, including requirements of prior authorization by authorities, and bargaining status. The law provides for unions to conduct their activities without government interference. The law also prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for remedial measures in cases of dismissal for union activity. The law does not specifically prohibit retaliation against strikers or actions against unions that are not registered.
The law requires that at least 20 percent of employees (excluding senior managerial staff) belong to a union before it may engage in collective bargaining at the enterprise (factory) level, and at least 15 percent of employees must be union members for collective bargaining at the sector (industry) level. The law provides for the establishment of industrial councils in the absence of collective agreements for sector-level bargaining. Industrial council functions include wage negotiation, dispute resolution, and industry-specific labor policy development. The law allows members of a registered union to strike after going through a mandatory mediation process overseen by the Ministry of Labor. A strike may take place only after a lengthy settlement procedure, including seven days’ notice of a strike and a 21-day conciliation process as set out in the Labor Relations Act has failed. The law also requires the labor minister to apply to the Industrial Relations Court to determine whether a strike involves an “essential service,” the interruption of which would endanger the life, health, or personal safety of part of the population. The law does not provide a specific list of essential services. Members of a registered union in essential services have only a limited right to strike. There are no special laws or exemptions from regular labor laws in export processing zones. The law does not apply to most workers who are in the informal sector without work contracts.
The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws. As was true of all cases entering the justice system, lack of capacity resulted in delays of some labor cases. Small fines for most violations were insufficient to deter violations. Provisions exist for punishment of up to two years in prison, but no convictions were reported.
Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining were adequately respected for those in the formal sector. Union membership among workers was low due to the small percentage of the workforce in the formal sector.
Arbitration rulings were legally enforceable; however, the Industrial Relations Court did not monitor cases or adequately enforce the laws.
Informal sector workers organized in the Malawi Union for the Informal Sector (MUFIS), which is affiliated with the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions. MUFIS worked with district councils to address issues affecting informal workers due in part to a Ministry of Labor decision that MUFIS did not have sufficient standing to bargain collectively with employers.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but penalties for conviction were insufficient to deter violations. The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws.
Children were sometimes subjected to domestic servitude and other forms of forced labor, including cattle herding, bonded labor on tobacco farms and other plantations, and menial work in small businesses.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law sets the minimum age for employment at 14, and children between ages 14 and 18 may not work in hazardous jobs or jobs that interfere with their education. The prohibition of child labor does not apply to work done in homes, vocational technical schools, or other training institutions. The law prohibits child trafficking, including labor exploitation and the forced labor of children for the income of a parent or guardian. The Employment Act provides a list of hazardous work for children and specifies a fine or imprisonment for conviction of violations. Penalties and enforcement were insufficient to deter offenders.
Police and Ministry of Labor officials were responsible for enforcing child labor laws and policies. Labor inspectors do not have law enforcement authority and must enlist police to pursue violators.
The Ministry of Labor, Skills, and Innovation increased the number of labor inspectors by 20 following promotions from lower grades to minimum grade for an officer to be eligible to conduct labor inspections. The ministry trained all 85 labor inspectors on child trafficking, labor legislation, and labor exploitation. The training on child trafficking was a follow-up to the designation of labor officers as enforcement officers of the trafficking in Persons Act and was carried out with assistance by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The ministry also carried out inspections focusing on the agricultural sector and domestic workers. The ministry worked with police and the social welfare department in the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare to investigate, prosecute, convict, and sentence persons convicted in cases of labor violations. The government acknowledged programs and activities continued largely based on the legal and regulatory framework that existed in 2018 except for the incorporation of labor officers as enforcement officers of the trafficking in persons act. The government, however, in collaboration with social partners and other stakeholders, developed several strategic documents to scale up interventions on ending child labor by 2025, and modern slavery and forced labor by 2020. Government reviewed the National Action Plan on Child, reviewed the Malawi Decent Work Country Program, and proposed abolition of tenancy labor in the employment amendment act. On November 7, the government ratified four ILO instruments, namely ILO C.029 protocol of 2014 to the forced labor convention 1930, ILO C187 promotional framework for occupational safety and health convention 2006, ILO C155 occupational safety and health convention 1981 and ILO C184 safety and health in agriculture convention 2001. These conventions are expected to be in force by November 7, 2020. Most public education activities and programs on child labor were carried out by tobacco companies–tobacco is the country’s largest export–and NGOs.
Child labor remained a serious and widespread problem. The 2015 National Child Labor Survey found 38 percent of children ages five to 17 were involved in child labor. Child labor was most prevalent on farms and in domestic service. These children often worked 12-hour days, frequently for little or no pay. Many boys worked as vendors, and young girls in urban areas often worked outside their families as domestic servants, receiving low or no wages. Children who worked in the tobacco industry risked working with hazardous chemicals and sometimes suffered from nicotine poisoning. On February 22, the Tobacco Industry Act came into force. The act requires tobacco growers to report on efforts to eliminate child labor in tobacco farming.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The employment law prohibits discrimination against any employee or prospective employee but does not cover sexual orientation or gender identity, and the government in general did not effectively enforce the law.
Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to gender and disability (see section 6). Despite the law against discrimination based on gender or marital status, discrimination against women was pervasive, and women did not have opportunities equal to those available to men. Women had significantly lower levels of literacy, education, and formal and nontraditional employment opportunities. Few women participated in the limited formal labor market, and those that did represented only a very small portion of managerial and administrative staff. Households headed by women were overrepresented in the lowest quarter of income distribution.
LGBTI individuals faced discrimination in hiring and harassment, and persons with disabilities faced discrimination in hiring and access to the workplace.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The minister of labor sets the minimum wage rate based on recommendations of the Tripartite Wage Advisory Board composed of representatives of labor, government, and employers. The minimum wage was set below the World Bank’s poverty income level. In 2018 the World Bank estimated 69 percent of citizens lived below the poverty line. There is no requirement that persons employed in the informal sector receive a minimum wage.
The Ministry of Labor did not effectively enforce the minimum wage. Because the law is limited to the formal sector, it did not apply to the more than 88 percent of the population that worked in the informal sector. Wage earners often supplemented their incomes through farming activities. No government programs provided social protections for workers in the informal economy.
Migrant workers are entitled to the same legal protections, wages, and working conditions as citizens if they comply with immigration laws. Those persons not in compliance, however, lack these protections and are subject to deportation.
The legal workweek is 48 hours, with a mandatory weekly 24-hour rest period. The law requires premium payment for overtime work and prohibits compulsory overtime. The law provides for a period of annual leave of no less than 15 working days. Workweek and annual leave standards were not effectively enforced, and employers frequently violated statutory time restrictions. The Ministry of Labor’s enforcement of health and safety standards was also poor. The law specifies fines and imprisonment for conviction of violations, but these penalties were not sufficient to deter offenders, and no reports of jail terms were ever reported.
The law includes extensive occupational health and safety standards that are appropriate for the main industries in the country. The Ministry of Labor houses a Directorate of Occupational Safety and Health responsible for minimum standards, but the number of labor inspectors was insufficient to enforce the law effectively. Workers, particularly in industrial jobs, often worked without basic safety clothing and equipment. In tobacco fields workers harvesting leaves generally did not wear protective clothing; workers absorbed up to 54 milligrams of dissolved nicotine daily through their skin, the equivalent of 50 cigarettes.
Workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous work situations without jeopardy to continued employment. Workers dismissed for filing complaints regarding workplace conditions have the right to file a complaint at the labor office or sue the employer for wrongful dismissal; however, these processes were not widely publicized, and workers were unlikely to exercise these rights. Authorities did not effectively protect employees in this situation.