This article is published by OneWorld South Asia, 26-10-2007

Anusha Lall

Child slavery thriving in Indian cotton industry

26 October 2007 -
India has distinction of having the largest area under cotton cultivation in the world and has been a pioneer in developing hybrid cotton seeds for commercial use. The Indian cottonseed industry is also marked by the highest proportion of child labour in its workforce.

The local seed farmer justifies the continued and increasing employment of children, particularly girls.

'Cross-pollination work [with reference to cottonseed cultivation in India] is very labour intensive and a large number of labourers [are] required to do this work. It is also delicate work and needs to be handled carefully. We prefer young girl children for this task because with their delicate fingers (nimble fingers) they can handle this work better than adults. They also work more intensively than adults. We can control them easily. They listen to us and do what ever we ask them to do.

‘The most important thing is labour costs. Nearly half of our investment goes towards payment of labour charges. The wage rates for children are far lower than adult wages. We can reduce our labour costs considerably if we hire girl children. If we want to hire adult labour we have to pay higher wages. With current the procurement price we get from the seed companies we can not afford to pay higher wages to the labourers.'

- Sivaramakrishna, (Seed Farmer), Mahaboobnagar District, Andhra Pradesh

Thus the majority of the labour force in this labour intensive sector is children, primarily girls, preferred on counts of minimising costs (as labour costs account for about 50% of total cultivation costs in the industry) through low wages (well below market and official minimum standards), higher levels of productivity that can be extracted from children by way of longer hours (8 to 12 hours) and more intensive work regimes, and also effective control.

The situation is rendered more complex with reference to the elements of bonded labour, the role of large national and multinational companies and of the contract farmers, etc.

Citing a recent report, the exploitation of child labour in the industry is linked with larger market forces; a multi-tiered, complex economic relationship, masking social and legal responsibility. The nature and the scale of the problem also hold implications for child trafficking, and conditions of migrant workers.

The children for most part are employed on a long-term contract basis through advances and loans extended to their parents by local seed producers, who have agreements with the large multinational and national seed companies. Most of these children belong to the disadvantaged sections as the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, and the Other Backward Classes, and 90 per cent are either school dropouts or have never attended schools.

The situation of these children is further characterised by unsafe and exploitative conditions, which can be exemplified by reference to the regular resort to verbal abuse and physical violence by the employers, and a report of the brutal rape and killing of two minor girls in Kurnool District, Andhra Pradesh.

Another condition specific to the cottonseed cultivation industry is the exposure of the children to poisonous pesticides used in high quantities. This exposure to health risks was also cited in the report of Physicians for Human Rights, 2003. The general health problems reported by children working in this industry were seen to include severe headaches, nausea, weakness, convulsions and respiratory depression. A few child deaths due to pesticide exposure were also reported in Andhra Pradesh.

Some facts and figures further highlight the entrenchment of the problems in the Indian economy and the role of the various players. Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in South India and Gujarat and Maharashtra in Central India account for nearly 95 per cent of total cottonseed production in the country. In 2006-07 nearly 416, 460 children under the age of 18 (54% of which were under the age of 14) were employed on cottonseed farms in these states (with the exception of Maharashtra).

The role of several Indian companies (Nuziveedu, Raasi, Ankur and Mahyco – the last a joint venture partner of multinational company Monsanto) can be presented as prominent examples, and multinationals (for example Monsanto, Bayer) can be identified in making use of 200,000 children employed by farmers sub-contracted for BT cottonseed cultivation.

The increasing area coverage under commercial cotton and cottonseed production, with especial reference to the substantial increase in the area under BT hybrid cotton has resulted in the growing control of multinational companies in the industry (for instance Monsanto has patent right over BT gene, therefore indirect control through sub-licence agreements with Indian seed companies).

The strength of the concern for the issue of child labour in the face of large scale-violations has led to growing pressure from national and international civil society. This has resulted in some proactive initiatives (including initiatives by seed companies in their production farms) as well as interventions (especially in the state of Andhra Pradesh) by the government, NGOs (such as the MV Foundation), and other organisations (such as ILO-IPEC, UNICEF).

NGO interventions have focused on bringing girl children back to mainstream education, campaigns against child labour, etc. while the overall response of state and central governments as well as the seed industry remain wanting, whereby the impact of interventions becomes diffused.

Existing employment practices in cottonseed cultivation are in denial of rights of children and in violation of national laws and international conventions (denial of children's rights to education, health and safe living).

This form of bonded labour, work conditions and low wages are also in contravention of the national Children (Pledging for Labour) Act 1933, Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976, Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986, Article 21A of the Indian Constitution which guarantees every child the right to free and compulsory education up to the age of 14 years, ILO Conventions Number 138 and 182 regarding minimum age for admission to employment and the prohibition of worst forms of child labour respectively as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

This piece is informed by Davaluri Venkateswarlu’s recent report on 'Child Bondage Continues in Indian Cotton Supply Chain: More than 400,000 children in India involved in hybrid cottonseed cultivation' (Commissioned Study by India Committee of the Netherlands, and OECD et al, September 2007) and proceeding reports highlighting the problem.

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Landelijke India Werkgroep - December 12, 2007