Around 200 Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) engaged in the production and marketing of hybrid cottonseeds, buy the produce from Indian farmers who employ thousands of small girls as forced labour in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, says a recent report.
Nine out of ten workers in cottonseed fields are children, mostly girls, says the report “Child labor and Trans-National Seed Companies in Hybrid Cottonseed Production in Andhra Pradesh” — published by the India Committee of the Netherlands, a campaigning organization supporting the poor in India. The children earn less than half a dollar a day.
Farmers here force local villagers to put their daughters to work in the fields. The parents are promised loans in the summer months when they face financial difficulties because of lack of work.
“These girls work long days, are paid very little, are deprived of an education and are exposed for long periods to dangerous agricultural chemicals,” says the report written by Davuluri Venkateswarlu, who heads a research institute in Andhra Pradesh.
Andhra Pradesh accounts for more than half of the 450,000 children in the 16 to 14 age group working in cottonseed fields in India. The child workforce in this sector outnumbers children employed in the carpet, glass bangles, diamond and gem polishing industries.
The report says there are about 200 companies producing and marketing hybrid cottonseeds in India. Among them are MNCs such as Unilever, Monsanto, Syngenta, Advanta, Bayer and Emergent Genetics. The MNCs operate through subsidiary companies or in collaboration with local Indian firms.
“Though all the MNCs mentioned above claim they are committed to highest standards of socially responsible corporate behavior, their activities in the area of cottonseed business in India are certainly not in tune with their claims,” Venkateswarlu says. “Though they are not directly involved in employing child labor their business strategies and profit motives are encouraging the evironment which supports the practices of child labor in a big way,” the report adds.
The Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant, Unilever, has denied that its policies encourage child labor in India. It said in a statement that it opposes child labor and is going to discuss the issue with anti-child labor campaigners.
India Committee Coordinator Gerard Oonk says the committee has already approached Unilever and Advanta. “They said they wijl promote that their Indian partners talk with the MV Foundation (a south India-based child’s rights group) and possibly others to contribute to a solution,” says Oonk.
The report mentions that the girls saw, harvest and pollinate each individual cotton flower bud by hand. Local village children work for over nine hours a day, or 11 to 12 hours in winter when there is more work to be done. Migrant children – who come from other states, some 2000 kilometers away, for employment – work for 12 to 13 hours a day.
The researcher says that the farmers prefer to employ girls because they believe that girls are more suited for the work at cottonseed farms which requires dexterity, concentration and patience.
“Also (girls) are supposed to have more ‘nimble fingers,'” says Oonk. “Employers also say that adult females cannot do this work when they have their monthly periods, as it might harm the crops,” he says.
The farmers often make the children work harder by bribing them with chocolates or biscuits. Competitions are conducted for fast work, and the prizes given away include hair ribbons or a ‘bindi’ – an inexpensive adhesive cosmetic dot that Indian women often put on their foreheads.
The report stresses that working in cottonseed fields has an adverse impact on the education and health of the children. It mentions that six out of ten children are school dropouts, while one in three has never been to school.
The work is also hazardous to health because of the high use of pesticides in the fields. “Children working in the cottonseed fields are directly exposed to poisonous pesticides like Endosulphan, Monocrotophos, Cypermethrin and Mythomyl for prolonged periods,” it says.
The India Committee of the Netherlands says that its partner in south India, the MV Foundation, is raising the issue of child labor with the government and local companies. The international community is also being informed about the report’s findings.