Law, Social Justice & Global Development
Source: DRMU, 2008
UNICEF also found that 5 out of 10 girls in India are not completing the compulsory 8 year schooling and those that drop out invariably go into employment (UNICEF, 2005). The key factors for using children seemed to be the ‘tradition’ of child labour and the ‘nimble fingers’ myth that children can do the work best. The children will also work much harder and for less wages than adults. These make children an obvious choice for farmers. This study has found that boys currently outnumber girls (57.6%).
Opinion Box 1: Girl Labour Issues in Cotton Seed Employment.
As shown above, the NGOs explained how girls face more hardship because they will not fight against maltreatment, and sexual abuse is common. Horror stories of girls being passed from farm to farm to be abused were shocking. Girls often won’t admit what has happened for fear of being ostracised and there is often community pressure to settle cases outside of court, either for political reasons or perhaps to ‘save face’ in the family. Whilst this trend persists the farmers will continue their despicable behaviour.
5.3 Tribal Communities as Labour Supply
BT cotton seed is very labour intensive and needs large numbers of workers, yet local labour use is negligible. The majority of labour is taken up by Southern Rajasthan migrants from the tribal communities. The graph below shows how disproportionately large the difference is between local and migrant labour.
Figure 4: Sources of Labour Supply
Source: DRMU, 2008
The reason behind the disparity appears to be socio-economic. The migration for work has continued for generations and connections from the villages to the farms are strong. The tribal communities are on the margins of society and face the most social disadvantages; they often lack alternative employment, quality education and have a tradition of working early in life. Parents may have no choice but to send their child to work (DRMU, 2008: 51). Sudhir explains that ‘nobody well off will send their children to work…it’s only the tribal children who are migrating. So there is an issue of poverty.’ Neera Burra (1995) found a similar problem where children from ‘schedule castes, lower castes, or the Muslim community’ had to work (Burra (1995) cited in Weiner et al., 2006: 243).
Figure 5: Boys being transported in Jeep:
Source: DRMU (2008)
The photographs are proof that children, of not more than 15 years old, are being transported in jeeps to work in the cotton fields where there is no shade or shelter. This evidence helps to visualise the age of the children and the work that they do.
Figure 6: Girl in Cotton Field with Flower in Mouth
Source: DRMU (2008)
5.4 The Use of ‘Mets’
Labour recruitment is done through the use of middle men called ‘Mets.’
‘Mets are older children, who the farmer, when 18, 19, 20 years, they hire because he knows from where he will get the children. He [the Met] will contact with the families, and the families know that person, so they believe they can trust him.’
The role of these ‘Mets’ is to provide labour to the farms, agree wages with the parents and transport the children. It was an assumption prior to the research that the recruiter would be someone much older from outside the community. The fact that the opposite is true shows how ingrained the relationship is between the cotton field work and the tribal community.
5.5 Securing Employment and Employment Conditions
A worrying discovery was that the ‘Mets’ secure the work of the child for the season based on an advancepayment arrangement to parents. The advance inadvertently binds the child to the farm and restricts their movement. If a child leaves early then often they will not receive any wage. This method of securing a workforce, lack of freedom and payment at the end of working period can be considered a type of ‘bonded labour,’ under the national Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act 1976. However Sanjeev explained by saying, ‘I would say yes, they are bonded labour but legally the Government will not accept it.’
Whilst in India it is legal to employ children in agriculture the conditions under which these children work is far from humane. The following section discusses working conditions that were found during the DRMU inspections and worker questionnaires. The DRMU has worked tirelessly to improve wages for workers. Sudhir says:
‘When we started work it was 50 rupees [a day] in Gujarat, minimum wage…and we got it pushed up to 50 rupees on the farms. Now the Government has pushed it up to 100 rupees…but the farmers still are only paying 60% of the minimum wage.’
The fact that the workers are paid so little violates the legal entitlements provided for by the national Minimum Wage Act 1948. The workers should be ‘legally entitled to 75 rupees for a 10 hour day, plus over time’ as noted by Sudhir. The NGOs also say that whilst it is impossible to stop the children working, it is vital to improve working conditions. As seen in Cambodia where policy makers accept that in certain levels of poverty child labour is inevitable and try to create more ‘ acceptable’ workplace regulations (Betcherman et al.,2004 cited in Kim, 2008). According to the farmers, they pay what they can afford and the reason for the low wages is the low seed rate which has not been increasing proportionally with the wages. Interestingly, there has been recent news reports of farmers getting trapped in debt due to the production costs of the BT cotton, so this could be true (Branford, 2008).
The children work many hours more than the legal requirement and farmers are in violation of the Indian Child Labour Act (1986). All NGOs attest to this. The DRMU study found that the children work in shifts, some starting as early as 5am. They work until 11am-noon then sign off for lunch. By 2-2.30pm they are in the fields again and work until 6.30-7pm (DRMU, 2008). These working hours are typical of those found in other Indian studies such as Custer (2002), Bhargav (2006) and Burra (1995).
The following conditions were found from the DRMU workers’ questionnaire:
Sudhir reported that intoxicants were being used to keep the children placid, although this was not verified. The children travel hundreds of kilometres for work. The DRMU found 93.5% of workers had travelled by jeeps at night. The NGOs are calling the movement of the children ‘trafficking’ as it is the consented illegal movement of workers into exploitation (ILO, 2002). Vijay notes that ‘it is definitely a form of trafficking, but the only difference I would say form the actual form of trafficking is that, they are destined to come back at the end of the three months.’ However, the issue is more complex. As Mary notes, ‘yes we are calling it trafficking now, but the problem is we do not have an Act to enforce this.’ Until India passes a trafficking act there is no law under which farmers can be penalised. It is clear then, from the discussion above that child work of this kind violates many aspects of the national Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986.
5.6 Impact of Migration: Lose of Rights and Acceptance of Child Labour
This section examines the impact of migration on individuals and communities. The parents want their children to be schooled. As Mary explains ’they want to send their children to education but there is a parallel need to feed their families.’E dmonds (2005) and Lieten, 2005 (cited in Bourdillon, 2006) also found that failure to attend school was due to poverty not lack of cultural values. The decision to send children to work is made easier by the poor quality education in the rural areas. Sudhir describes the shocking reality:
‘The quality of education in the region is very poor, if the children go to school they end up learning hardly anything. After 5 years’ education, there are cases where a child can’t even read and write. It’s very common.’
Evidence shows that once a child starts working, they will end up dropping out of school permanently. This leads to a lifetime of low wage labour and as they grow up into adulthood. It is found that they too, will send their children to work. The DRMU calls this an ‘Inter-transfer of Poverty’ (DRMU, 2008). In the DRMU survey, 36% of children had experienced verbal abuse and 12% had been abused physically (for case studies of abuse). Girls, as described previously, are frequently sexually abused. Any abuse can leave a permanent mental scar. As Mary explains, ‘there are physiological impacts as the children lose their freedom and their self-confidence and there are obviously serious mental consequences if there has been abuse during the time on the farm.’ The children are ‘silent sufferers’ accepting their lives of drudgery as established by Burra’s (1995) research on domestic labourers in India.
India has ratified the UN Convention on Child Rights (1989) which seeks to protect children, that is, all those up to the age of 18 years old. Vijay explains how children involved in the kind of work reviewed breaches this convention:
‘It’s not about money, what about their right? They are not getting education, so denial of the child’s right, they are not getting the proper food, is the second denial of the child right and third, is the health.’
Acceptance of the problem varies from region to region, and from person to person. A typical case is that of Monsanto, an American ‘seed giant’ who owns most of the Bt Cotton share in India. All NGO respondents felt that this company should be held accountable for the child labour in the industry. The company claims that responsibility lies with the national Indian sub-contractors and not with themselves as primary employer. On Monsanto’s ‘Corporate Responsibility’ webpage it states that it is committed to abide by the ILO Convention 182 on Worst Form of Child Labour but does support employment of children as long as it does not interfere with education. The company’s own inspections found child labour on only 10% of the farms, a vast difference to the DRMU survey which found it on more than 90%. However, the farmers are forewarned about the inspections. The company has set up a ‘ child protection programme’ but seems not to be enough.
Whilst the Government of Rajasthan has accepted the presence of child labour in the cotton industry, the respondents noted that the Government of Gujarat is yet to acknowledge it. It was reported during the fieldwork that during inspections, Government officials accept bribes when finding children. Mary explains that ‘ ‘when the Government inspectors find children they ask for money, or the farmer will pass something to them and they will keep quiet.’ Corruption had not been considered but it makes sense that in the current rising social consciousness about child labour that the farmers are willing to pay for silence.
The Government of India fully accepts the problem of child labour and adopted a National Child Labour Policy in 1987 following the national Child Labour (Prevention and Regulation) Act of 1986 (Indian Embassy, 2008). They have since implemented a number of initiatives. Vijay says ‘it [the Government] knows about it, and it is also active on it… particularly…the Childs Rights Commission; because it’s not a local phenomena, it’s a national phenomena.’ The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights established in 2007 was highly commended by all respondents. The issue is therefore not with Governmental attitude but with internal structures. As Vijay further notes ‘there are lots of initiatives, but…the structures of implementation are often the same ones that create child labour.’ This problem needs to be addressed if tangible success is to be attained.
The tribal communities of Rajasthan have a tradition of migration but sending children to work increases school dropout rates and creates a cycle of poverty, effectively condemning them to a lifetime of low wage and menial labour (Action Aid, 2005; Young, 2002). The child migrants face physical abuse coupled with the reported frequent cases of sexual abuse for girl workers. This has culminated in the mental scarring of victims. The estimates suggest that in Gujarat with 25,000 acres of cotton cultivated land and 10 labourers needed per acre, 92,000 out of the 250,000 workers are children (DRMU, 2008). The suggested 1% child labour that Monsanto gives is based on other NGO findings and global estimates. The Government has gaps in its data and relies on NGOs figures.
The children are recruited for seasonal work through advance cash payment given to the parents with a promise of full payment at the end of the season. Child migrant workers who choose to leave the fields and return home before the end of the season are not paid. This clearly reflects a compromise of their rights and a form of bonded labour under the national Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act 1976. It is clear that NGOs can only do so much to tackle the issue of child labour. All the sampled organisations are working within the communities, promoting awareness and education. Action Aid and the DRMU are trying to build links between the Government and the cotton seed companies and also lobby these companies to take more responsibility to address the problem. A strategy to address this pattern is to raise the wages of adult labourers and encourage recruiters to join union movements. DRMU have been successful in advocating for wage increases which has seen a recent rise from 30 to 60 rupees. This is still less than the minimum wage of 100 rupees.
The sampled NGOs commended the Indian National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights for its acknowledgement of the problem of child labour and associated abuses. However, mere acknowledgement is not enough to address the problem. The hurdle has been the refusal of the regional Gujarat Government to accept that child labour exists in the cotton fields. This requires pragmatic effort from the central government to encourage regional governments investigate and address issues relating to the rights and exploitation of children. The lack of enforcement of existing legislation, penalising the seed companies and agents who recruit child labourers within the rural communities has been highlighted by this study as problematic.
Monsanto has a well written corporate social responsibility code of practice and claims to uphold the ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour. It should therefore use its power and resources as a multinational corporation to redress the phenomenon by encouraging its suppliers to abide by ethical codes of practice towards the elimination of exploitative child labour (ILO, 2006). An important policy strategy is to introduce socio-legal education at the organisational level to improve knowledge and awareness of the situation. All administrative agencies should be encouraged to enforce the national legislation strongly and improve quality of education and vocational training so that there would be a real opportunity for viable skill acquisition and sustainable alternatives to rural employment.
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1 We gratefully acknowledge the support of three Indian development organisations: PRAYAS, the DRMU and Action Aid Jaipur. All three participated in the research project and offered the use of secondary and primary data which is gratefully acknowledged in this study.
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