Cotton multinationals slow to address child exploitation
Multinational companies, including Bayer, Monsanto and Advanta, are dragging their heels in curbing child exploitation, despite public commitments made last year. According to a report released last week by the India Committee of the Netherlands, an estimated 12,375 children continue to work for less than a dollar a day in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The report found the children to be working for multinational companies including Advanta Seeds, Bayer affiliate ProAgro, Emergent Genetics and Mahyco-Monsanto.
As members of Association of Seed Industry (ASI), the companies
had pledged in September 2003 to work alongside Nuziveedu Seed
Company, the seed group in India, and the MV Foundation, a leading child rights organisation in India, to eliminate child labour in India's cottonseed industry.
The September 2003 meeting was the first time the companies had
openly accepted their responsibility for the employment of children in seed production. A resolution was passed outlining the companies'
commitment to addressing the problem of child labour in their supply chains.
The India Committee Netherlands' report concludes that ASI
members delayed on crucial deadlines and were slow to produce and share critical information. As a result the programme has suffered setbacks. The exploitation of children has continued unabated, resulting in another spate of child deaths through pesticide exposure in July 2004.
The report, "Child Labour in Hybrid Cottonseed Production in
Andhra Pradesh: Recent Developments", found a large number of children to be employed on farms producing exclusively for multinational companies. Of the 174 seed farms included in the study, fourteen produced solely for multinational companies, employing a total of 272 children.
A key concern for local and international non-governmental
organisations has been the ongoing denial by multinational companies over the impact of existing procurement price policies. Both NGOs and local cottonseed farmers argue that, at present, the prices paid by the multinationals are too low to attract adult labourers to work in their fields in sufficient numbers.
Compared with 2000-01, the costs of inputs (wages, fertilisers and
pesticides) have increased by between 10% and 15% whereas the
procurement prices most of the seed companies have paid to the farmers have not changed. Procurement prices have remained consistently low,
despite production shocks resulting from several seasons of drought.
Farmers have been forced to operate with razor-thin margins in
order to break even, which has done little to encourage alternative - more expensive - methods of production.
In total, 12,375 children worked in production for multinational
companies during the period 2003-04. Children currently make up 53.5% of total workforce, and girls account for nearly 72% of the total child labour population.
The current crop season began with a death through pesticide exposure of a 13-year-old boy, Mallesh. He was employed as a bonded labourer and, among other tasks, was responsible for spraying pesticides on the field.
The use of chemical pesticides by farmers in cottonseed cultivation is
currently unregulated. Direct exposure to these pesticides had resulted in acute illnesses and occasional deaths.
Children are often made to stand in fields of cotton plants up to their
shoulders, as they identify flowers ready for pollination or carry out
pesticide spraying work. They are exposed to pesticides for prolonged
periods on a regular basis.
Despite the ASI having rolled out several initiatives to encourage
farmers to abandon the use of child labour, current economic conditions
combined with a series of poor growing seasons has undermined these efforts.
It appears that until the price impact of crop failures is translated onto the world market, procurement prices will remain too low to sustain seed farmers. The resulting downward pressure on wages will only prolong child exploitation.