WASHINGTON — India, which is continuing its rise to the top of global cotton production, has made some strides in reducing the use of child labor in its cottonseed industry, but the problem remains widespread, according to a new report released Thursday.
Some 200,000 children under the age of 14 (India’s legal minimum age threshold) toiled in the cottonseed industry in India in 2014 through the present day, according to the report dubbed “Cotton’s Forgotten Children,” released by the India Committee of the Netherlands, a non-governmental organization, and the Stop Child Labour Coalition, a collation of NGOs and trade unions.
India is poised to become the world’s largest cotton producer this year, as previously reported. The country is expected to produce 6.63 million tons of cotton in 2014-15, according to the Cotton Advisory Board, which is in line with a similar estimate by the International Cotton Advisory Committee.
Yet as it grows, almost half a million Indian children, including those legally working between the ages of 14-18 years old, are said to be producing cottonseed, the report said. Children below the age of 14 producing cotton seed represent about 25 percent of the Indian workforce while another 35 percent of the workforce are children between the ages of 14 and 18.
“It is equally shocking that the number of children working in the cottonseed fields has increased by almost 100,000 since the last all-India study on this issue in 2010,” the groups said in a statement.
The majority of the children working under the age of 14 were employed in cottonseed farms in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Rajasthan states, according to the report. Gujarat state alone accounted for nearly 55 percent of the total children employed in the cottonseed sector.
However, despite the reported widespread use of child labor, the proportion of children to the total workforce and the average number of children employed per acre in hybrid cottonseed production in India is “showing a decline in all of the states,” the report said. The decline is significant in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka but has not translated into a decline of the total number of children employed because a “substantial increase in the production are in these states,” according to the report.
The report also highlighted an ongoing problem with the failure to pay the legal minimum wage to workers in the cottonseed industry.
The field survey covered a sample of 396 cottonseed farms in 72 villages producing seeds for multinational corporations and major Indian seed companies, the report said.
The report credited a number of initiatives by multinational companies such as Bayer, Monsanto and DuPont, local companies, government agencies, UNICEF, NGOs and unions, which it said has “helped to reduce the number of young working children.”
“Despite the decline, the total number of children still employed in the cottonseed sector is huge,” the report said. “The conditions in the fields continue to be very unsafe and exploitative for the children,” it stated, noting that they are often made to work long hours, paid less than the official minimum wage, exposed to poisonous pesticides and often trafficked as migrants from other places.
The report said there is a “misperception” that “most working children in seed production are family laborers who help their parents during school holidays and before and after school hours. This is not correct.”
Family child laborers accounted for less than 30 percent of the total working children in three states, according to the report. The proportion of children who drop out of school to work full-time ranges from 55 to 62 percent.
The report also charged that the response from the seed industry as a whole in addressing the child labor problem has been “minimal.”
Recommendations in the 47-page report included: requiring seed companies to conduct a proper review of their procurement policies for child labor and paying the official minimum wage to workers; government and independent agencies to research the issue of minimum wage to ensure adults in the cottonseed industry are paid a living wage; and creating a task force of Indian state governments to ensure labor rights are upheld in the sector.