Anglo-Dutch company Unilever prides itself on "meeting the everyday needs of people everywhere" by producing a myriad of consumer goods from washing powders to shampoos and toothpaste. It is number one in the world for ice cream, margarines and tea drinks.
Unilever explains on its website about its "continuing journey to be a responsible corporate citizen in the day-to-day practice of our business around the world". It goes on: "Around the world our companies are active in projects to raise standards of education and training, to promote health and initiatives to benefit the environment".
In light of that, one would imagine it was a real embarrassment when a report published by the India Committee of the Netherlands in early May claimed Unilever "buys hybrid cotton seeds from farmers on the subcontinent who pay children a handful of rupees to work long hours in hazardous conditions".
The report revealed that Unilever's Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL), buys the seeds from a company called Paras Extra Growth Seed. Middlemen supply the seeds, which they buy from farmers who use child labour.
But Unilever is not easily fazed. In a short statement issued on 5 May, the soap-to-soup merchant confirmed that Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) had brought the working conditions in hybrid cottonseed production in India to "its attention" some time ago.
"Unilever is aware of this problem and entered into extensive correspondence about this and held talks and always showed its willingness to continue the dialogue," Unilever reported.
Unilever went on to claim that it was not really its problem anyway and it questioned why the NGOs had not approached HLL directly. Then the statement mounts Unilever's main defence: "HLL has a minority stake without management control in Paras Extra Growth Seed" - so it has no control.
Yet, Unilever says: "HLL has always laid down in its contracts that suppliers must not use child labour. It has made sure that its suppliers complied with these agreements by conducting regular checks; through visits, by making inquiries and by requiring confirmation of compliance with the agreements".
But the killer argument was yet to come: "Child labour is prohibited in India"; violations can be reported to the authorities and HLL has always being willing to do that.
How can the Unilever statement be reconciled with the report by the India Committee of the Netherlands?
Perhaps this just reflects the reality of the situation in the world. Human rights groups and governments can huff and puff all they like about the evils of child labour, but it is not going to go away.
Big business thrives on supplying the world markets with mass produced, cheap consumer goods. To do that, companies have to limit production costs. Voila, children, from impoverished backgrounds, are the perfect cost-effective solution.
And surely the children benefit too? Statistics show many of the poorest families in India earn 30 percent or more of the household income from sending the children out to work. This puts food on the table and clothes on their backs.
If child labour is abolished, high-minded liberals in Western Europe will be chuffed, but the child workers in India and elsewhere will be worse off than before. And prices will go up in your local shop.
Accepting the reality of child labour might seem like the sensible thing to do - until you actually read about the realities.
Child labour is not a problem in itself. The problem arises when children are exploited and treated like cattle. That is what seems to be happening in the hybrid cotton seeds industry in India.
The report by the India Committee of the Netherlands notes that local seed farmers secure the "bonded labour" of young girls by offering loans to their parents in advance of cultivation. This compels the girls to work at the terms set by the employer for the entire season, and, in practice, for several years.
About 90 percent of all labour in the Indian cotton seed market is carried out by 450,000 children, some of them as young as six and most of them girls.
"These girls work long days, are paid very little, are deprived of an education and are exposed for long periods to dangerous agricultural chemicals," the report said.
Narasamma, 12, told the report's authors she had worked in the cotton fields for the past five years. She sleeps in a cattle shed, and works more than 13 hours a day, with two breaks. For that she is paid 30 rupees, less than USD 1 a day (about 87 euro cents).
Even in India, USD 1 a day is not going to provide her with a better future. But the farmers are even more generous: children are offered biscuits, chocolate and other inducements (made by Unilever?) to encourage them to work harder.
And why is the workforce made up predominantly of young girls?
Joseph Ghattia, the head of India's Centre of Concern for Child Labour, explained to BBC News Online that farmers encouraged people to believe that cross-pollination of the seeds will only work if girls who had not yet reached puberty carried it out.
Unilever, meanwhile, says it is willing to talk to the India Committee of the Netherlands about the problem, but at the time of writing, a firm date had yet to be agreed.
In less than three years, 132 countries ratified International Labour Organisation Convention No. 182, which calls for immediate action to ban the worst forms of child labour.
Clearly, there is a strong movement opposed to child slave labour, but the problem will never really go away until we, consumers, force companies like Unilever to put the high ideals they espouse into action.
This means we have to accept having to pay more for our toothpaste and ice cream and cotton products.
Let the Indian children have a childhood, give them an education and let their parents have decent jobs, with decent conditions and a fair wage.
9 May 2003
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