Unilever, Watchdog Groups To Discuss Indian Child Labor
AMSTERDAM (AP) -- The Anglo-Dutch food maker Unilever Plc agreed Monday to meet with labor watchdog organizations over allegations that the multibillion dollar company profits from the employment of tens of thousands of children, some as young as 6, working on farms in India for just pennies a day.
The announcement came in response to a report published over the weekend in Dutch papers by a Dutch non-government organization alleging that Unilever buys raw materials from farmers who employ children working in hazardous conditions for up to 13 hours a day.
Unilever spokeswoman Alexandra Middendorp said the company was prepared to meet with the groups India Committee of the Netherlands, Amnesty International and Novib to discuss an improvement of conditions.
Unilever doesn't accept direct responsibility for the employment of children, but it could "try to contribute to a solution," she told The Associated Press.
The report commissioned by the India Committee of the Netherlands said about 90% of all labor in the Indian cotton seed market is done by 450,000 children.
"A new system of employing female children as `bonded laborers' has come into practice on hybrid cotton seed farms in south India in recent years," according to researcher Davuluri Venkateswarlu. The farms "secure the labor of girls by offering loans to their parents in advance of cultivation, compelling the girls to work at the terms set by the employer for the entire season.
"These girls work long days, are paid very little, are deprived of an education and are exposed for long periods to dangerous agricultural chemicals," the report said.
Venkateswarlu said about 200 seed companies are involved in the production and marketing of hybrid cotton seeds in India, including multinationals Monsanto Co., Syngenta AG, Advanta India Ltd, Bayer AG and Emergent Genetics.
Unilever buys the cotton seeds from Paras Extra Growth Seed through its subsidiary Hindustan Lever Ltd.
The groups wrote a complaint last week to Unilever's chief executive, Anthony Burgmans, and biotechnology giant Syngenta International.
The letter to Burgmans said the company profits from the work of 22,500 children, aged 6-14, working in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Most are girls who are paid a day rate of 18 rupees ($1=INR46.96). They work up to 13 hours during which they are exposed to poisonous pesticides of which the long-term health implications are unknown, the complaint said.
A survey of 320 children working at cotton seed farms in 1999-2000, described in the report, found that about 95% of the children weren't paid but had their wages deducted from outstanding loans to their families, in a practice called "debt bondage".
Children are offered inducements such as chocolate and biscuits to work harder and farmers offer prize ribbons for the best workers. About 60% of the children are school dropouts, the report said, and 29% never attended school at all. The remaining 11% wasn't broken down.
"Unilever is partly responsible for the employment of children by farmers," said Gerard Oonk of the India Committee of the Netherlands. "The companies need to work with local NGOs and the government to tackle this problem which applies to Unilever, but also to the entire sector," Oonk said.
In 2002, Unilever's net profit rose 21% to EUR2.22 billion on sales of EUR52 billion. Among its 400 key brands are Lipton tea, Dove soap and Hellman's mayonnaise.