US pop icon Madonna has begun her legal defence in a Malawian court as workers at one of the singer's charity projects attempt to sue for unfair dismissal, a tribunal official said.
Eight staff at the failed $US15 million Raising Malawi Academy for Girls (RMAG) lodged the action at the end of March, claiming they were let go without proper procedures.
The star said "there is nothing unfair about the termination of the applicants' employment given the termination of employment was necessitated by genuine economic reasons," in documents filed last week by lawyer Davis Njobvu.
Madonna said the decision not to continue funding the academy project was taken by by her charity Raising Malawi Inc "after carefully reviewing its financial commitments and future plans and was made in good faith."
Led by Anjimile Oponya, the former head of the school, the workers allege they were forced to sign a termination agreement they describe as "unfair and unconstitutional".
Madonna, who adopted children David Banda and Mercy James from Malawian orphanages, said the charity had proposed to pay them more than they were due on the condition they signed a "confidentiality agreement."
The pop star also said Raising Malawi, a US-registered foundation providing funds for the school's construction, was not directly implicated in the affair and it was RMAG that "would be responsible for any matters relating to the applicants' employment."
She said RMAG was "ready and willing to pay the applicants their retrenchments and redundancy benefits calculated in accordance with the Employment Act and the laws of Malawi."
A hearing of the application to strike out Raising Malawi as a party to the action has been set for Wednesday in Blantyre.
Madonna announced in January she was reviewing the direction of Raising Malawi, which had originally planned to establish an academy offering 500 scholarships to girls from impoverished backgrounds.
In a statement, she said she had realised the academy would not be enough as two-thirds of girls are not educated beyond primary school and she wanted to reach "thousands and not hundreds of girls" by constructing several schools in the area.