Child labor in India's cottonseed industry
Airing Out the Dirty Industry
Child labor in agriculture is a big problem but not an insurmountable one. Out of the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimate of 246 million children working in the world today, 70% are in agriculture. It is even more shocking to see that many of these children are laboring under hazardous conditions on commercial farms producing cotton, cocoa, coffee, and tea for a multi-billion dollar international trade system, which boasts sophisticated trade rules but is shamefully incapable of dealing with gross human rights violations such as child slavery.
There are an increasing number of reports indicating the existence of the problem of child labor in cotton production in several major producing countries such as Uzbekistan, India, Mali, Cote d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso and even the US. Cotton is a commodity produced and traded worldwide, and the causes of child labor in the cotton industry differ in each country. In Uzbekistan, a high government-determined quota forces cotton farmers to recruit children as young as five years old to work in cotton fields under hazardous working and living conditions. In Mali and Burkina Faso, cotton farmers are suffering under the brunt of the US's heavily subsidized cotton industry, which has significantly reduced the world's cotton price, forcing farmers to use trafficked and forced child labor. Even in the US cotton fields, immigrant children toil under harsh conditions performing tasks such as weeding around cotton plants. In India, the culprits are western multinational companies (MNCs) directly profiting from the use of bonded child labor on cottonseed farms.
An ILRF staff member recently traveled to India to initiate local contacts where an introduction of hybrid cottonseed production by MNCs has produced a new system of employing children as bonded
laborers on a large-scale basis. In July 2002, the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) commissioned a report, "Child labor and Transnational Seed Companies in Hybrid Cottonseed Production in Andhra Pradesh", where it estimated that nearly 400,000 girls in the age group of 7 to l4 years are employed in India's cottonseed fields. In the state of Andhra Pradesh alone, accounts for nearly 250,000 child workers. The number of children in the cottonseed industry exceeds the combined number of children working in glass bangles, carpets, gem polishing and limestone industries in India.
According to the report, children make up about 90% of all labor used in cotton production and that many of them are held in debt bondage working to pay off a loan or advance that was paid to their parents. Children are hired through "seed organizers" that supply farmers with cheap labor. A child earns 30% less than a woman and 55% less than a man. Female children are a preferred source of labor as they work longer hours averaging 12 hours a day, are more available than boys as fewer girls are enrolled in school, are easier to control, and are willing to work more intensively.
A health investigation of 100 children working in cottonseed fields conducted by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) in 2001 found that children were exposed to numerous harmful pesticides. They reported experiencing headaches, dizziness, and skin and eye irritation, and they were not provided with water or basic safety equipment such as shoes.
Monsanto (US), Emergent Genetics (US), Syngenta AG (Switzerland), Unilever (British-Dutch), Advanta Corp (British), and Proagro (a subsidiary of Bayer, based in Germany) are operating through their subsidiaries in India to produce hybrid cottonseeds using bonded child labor. For example, the ICN report found around 17,000 children working for Monsanto and its Indian subsidiary MAHYCO.
Ironically, many of these MNCs claim to adhere to a code of conduct that prohibits child labor. However, the PHR investigation found that representatives of the MNCs and their subsidiaries were fully aware of the ongoing practice of child labor in the industry for the past ten years but had done nothing until the public release of the ICN report. Even then, their tendency to hide behind layers of subsidiaries to avoid responsibility is apparent; Monsanto's response to ILRF's letter of concern simply stated, "We are assured by Mahyco (Monsanto subsidiary) that they discourage the use of child labor by their suppliers and work to ensure that their seed production contractors follow local labor laws."
Due to the mobilizing power of the MV Foundation (MVF), a local NGO, and international pressure from groups where the multinationals are based, the cottonseed companies were finally forced to admit their responsibility for the actions of their third party contractors. The companies, represented by the Association of Seed Industry, have agreed to collaborate with MVF and UNICEF to form a Child Labor Eradication Group to conduct internal monitoring as well as disclose the names and locations of cotton farms in order to allow an independent monitoring.
The cotton season will begin in May. Whether or not the MNCs are serious about their promise to eliminate bonded child labor in their farms will soon be apparent. ILRF will continue to work with local partners like MVF to monitor the behavior of US companies such as Monsanto and Emergent Genetics, and apply pressure when necessary. Multinational trading and producing companies cannot be allowed to benefit from the multi-billion dollar industry that has chained so many children to the fields.
Please check ILRF's website for information about our other child labor work on cocoa, and to download an action kit to demand that coffee, cocoa, and flower companies eliminate the use of child labor in their global supply chains.