Syngenta vows to eradicate child labour in Indian seed operations
HONG KONG (AFX-GEM) - Swiss seed manufacturer Syngenta AG plans to lead the industry by totally eradicating child labour from its Indian seed production process and is pressurising other companies to do the same, a company spokesman said Thursday.
Syngenta, along with other multinationals such as Monsanto Co and Unilever NV/PLC, has been accused by local and international activist organisations of allowing child labour to take place in the farms that are contracted to produce hybrid cotton seeds in Andhra Pradesh, India.
Syngenta recently met with a number of Indian NGOs and UN representatives in Andhra Pradesh and Hyderabad in early July to discuss how the child labour issue could be resolved.
Following the meeting, the company says that child labour will be a thing of the past by 2004, and it has plans to "rigorously" enforce its code of conduct throughout the entire production chain.
"There is no doubt there have been children working in hybrid cotton seed production -- that is true -- and there definitely was an issue that people weren't as concerned about this five years ago," Michael Stopford, head of global public affairs and government relations at Syngenta International told AFX Global Ethics Monitor.
"It is definitely going to be rigorously enforced from now on. I went round several Indian farms and they all know we are dead serious about this. We went to see every last half acre of farm and met with all the production managers and they are convinced they can ensure that as far as we are concerned there will be no child labour.
"We think we have a good record or certainly we will have a good record on the subject. We want to show we are a moral leader with this."
Stopford said that the company is assessing a system of external monitoring, but would not be drawn on the details of the proposed set-up. "We are considering forms of working with external bodies on external verification," Stopford said.
Representatives of the MV Foundation, a leading Indian child labour activist group, have pressed Syngenta to spearhead an independent monitoring group involving multinationals, local Indian companies, NGOs and government representatives to police the issue.
Stopford that Syngenta has already approached a number of multinationals for preliminary discussions. "We met Monsanto, Hindustan Lever, Emergent Genetics, Maharashtra Seeds and some Indian company heads. They all agreed that the industry should do something," Stopford said.
Stopford would not comment on the feedback received by each of the companies, though did indicate there was a division of opinion in what needed to be done. "There was a degree of support expressed for a group or task force being formed. We said it depends on who is the most committed to it. People had different ideas on what needed to be done and who to work with."
He said that he is waiting to hear a progress report from the Association of Seed Industry in Mumbai before any further steps are taken. No agreements have yet been reached with regard to funding or the structure of the committee.
Hindustan Lever, the Indian subsidiary of Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant Unilever recently said it could not be held accountable for the actions of its third-party contractors. Stopford said that Syngenta believes otherwise and that monitoring third party producers was the only way to make sure they followed the company's code of conduct.
"Of course it is our responsibility to look at our contractors. It is difficult, but I would say Syngenta's responsibility is through its entire production chain," said Stopford. "We say to all our producers and we ask all our contractors, are you able to do this? And they say yes. It is a question of looking down the production line with competent production managers. It involves a lot of commitment, work, follow-through and detail. The criteria we have said is that is if you have to have your children working they have to go to school. The key criteria has to be school," he said. "We are satisfied that although some grumbled that it was economically difficult, they will do it because we insist on it."
Syngenta will not be producing hybrid cotton in Andhra Pradesh this year, said Stopford, though he added that the company would be returning to the area in 2004. Stopford insists that the lack of farming in 2003 is not an exercise in evading responsibility and said that the company will not be producing anywhere in India this year.
"It is not as if we are now going to shift somewhere else and commit bad practices. That would be stupid."