LONDON (AFX-GEM) - Multinational companies, including Unilever PLC, Monsanto Co, Syngenta AG, Advanta Corp and Bayer AG have been indirectly linked with the widespread use of child labour in India through a network of subsidiaries which produce and market hybrid cotton seeds, according to a report released Tuesday.
The report, published by independent NGO the India Committee of the Netherlands, said these companies buy hybrid cotton seeds from farmers who pay children a pittance to work long hours in hazardous conditions.
All the companies involved claim they are committed to the highest standards of socially responsible corporate behaviour, the researchers said, but their activities in the area of cotton seed business in India "are certainly not in tune with their claims."
"Though they are not directly involved in employing child labour their business strategies and profit motives encourage the environment which supports the practices of child labour in a big way."
The report said about 90 percent of all labour in the Indian cotton seed market was carried out by 450,000 children, most of them girls aged six to 14.
The number of children employed far surpasses the total number of children employed in industries such as carpet, glass, bangles, diamond polishing and limestone put together.
"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.
It accused farmers of securing the girls' long-term labour by offering their parents loans, which took years to repay.
The report said children were offered biscuits, chocolate and were given other inducements such as cinema visits to encourage them to work harder.
On average, children are paid about 18 rupees (38 US cents) per day, which is about 30 percent less than the adult female and 55 percent less than the adult male. They generally work for 9 to 9.5 hours per day and during the winters, when there is more work to be done, they work from 11 to 12 hours, the report said.
Unilever, which says it is strongly opposed to child labour, has agreed to meet campaigners to discuss the issue, but as yet no date has been set.
"Unilever is a strong opponent of child labour and subscribes to the [International Labor Organization] conventions on this matter," it said in a statement.
"Unilever is aware of this problem and entered into extensive correspondence about this and held talks and always showed its willingness to continue the dialogue."
The company said it is surprised at the fact that the NGOs have not sought contact with its Indian subsidiary Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL), despite Unilever's invitations to do so.
HLL has a minority stake without management control in Paras Extra Growth Seed Ltd, the business that purchases cottonseed from the seed organisers, who in turn buy it from the growers.
HLL has always laid down in its contracts that suppliers must not use child labour.
Unilever was not immediately available for comment.
Hybrid cottonseed production is a highly labour and capital intensive activity, requiring about 10 times more labour and four and a half times more capital when compared to the commercial cotton crop. Moreover, each individual cotton flower bud has to be delicately pollinated by hand.
Human rights group Amnesty International said: "The reported conditions clearly raise concerns - particularly on health grounds and the right of children to education."
"It is essential that companies recognise their full responsibility for the human rights of all involved in their supply chains."
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