Child Labour and Trans-National Seed Companies in Hybrid Cotton Seed Production in Andhra Pradesh


Nature of work and terms and condition of employment

The present section briefly describes the nature of work and terms and conditions of employment in hybrid cottonseed farms, and impact of cottonseed work on education and health of the children. The observations presented in this section are based on the author's previous studies and also on a fresh field survey of working conditions of children in 22 seed farms producing seed for various MNCs in Kurnool and Mahaboobnagar districts in AP conducted for the purpose of this study.

Nature of work

The mating or crossing of two plants or lines of dissimilar genotype are known as hybridization. Hybrids seeds produced through cross pollination will have 'hybrid vigor' and can be used for only one crop. Seed has to be replaced every crop season. Hybrid seed production in a self pollinated crop like cotton is a difficult task, especially when a large quantity is to be produced for commercial production. Unlike other hybrid seeds like paddy and jowar, in cottonseed, cross pollination work has to be done manually. Each individual flower bud has to be emasculated and pollinated by hand by a large labour force. Doak's method of emasculation of the flower bud is used. This method involves the removal of bracts first by hand, and then the petals, along with the entire anther-sac whorl, with the nail of the thumb, without damaging the stigma, style or ovary. Crossing needs to be done as soon as the flowers blossom before the female flowers bear fruit (and consequently produce non-hybridised or 'fake' seeds).

Labour and capital intensive

Hybrid cottonseed production is a highly labour and capital intensive activity. It requires about 10 times more labour and four and a half times more capital when compared to the commercial cotton crop. Commercial cotton requires about Rs 12,000 to 15,000 per acre whereas seed cotton requires about Rs 50,000 to 60,000. Ploughing, sowing, intercultivation, application of fertilisers and pesticides, cross pollination and harvesting are important activities in cottonseed cultivation. Generally the crop season starts in the month of May or June and continues till January or February of the subsequent year. In cottonseed production cross pollination (emasculation and pollination) work which lasts about four months is done manually. Cross-pollination alone requires about 90% of the total labour days employed and 45% of the capital investment. It is estimated that, while nearly 2,200 labour days are required for cultivation of one acre hybrid cottonseed crop, cross-pollination work itself accounts for nearly 2,000 labour days. Other important operations like harvesting requires about 100 labour days (4.5%) and intercultivation 25 labour days (1.1%). Children, mostly girls, are employed for carrying out cross-pollination activity. They are also employed for other activities like sowing, intercultivation and harvesting. The involvement of adult labour is mainly confined to activities like ploughing, sowing and application of fertilisers and pesticides.

Terms and conditions of employment

Hybrid cottonseed production requires assured supply of labour for carrying out various activities, particularly, cross-pollination work. Keeping this in view, the seed producers prefer to have advance agreements with labourers before starting off the seed cultivation. They employ children on long-term contract basis by paying advances/loans to their parents. A Survey of 320 children working in cottonseed farms in 1999-2000 conducted by the author revealed that about 95% of the children were in debt bondage (Venkateswarlu, D., 2001). Debt bondage, although generally binding for one crop season only, still manages to extend into years at a time, until the loan is repaid. The survey revealed that most of the children continue to work with the same employers for years together because of debt bondage. This is reflected in the fact that 70% of the children employed in 1999-2000 worked in the same fields as the year before.

Regarding the loans given to the parents of children, one seed producer remarked that "we need the girls to work in the cottonseed field all through the season. If the children stop coming half way through, we would be at a loss. So we take the agreements from their parents in advance. If they have to abide by the agreement we need to give them some money in advance. If we don't give, there is a danger of them quitting work in the middle and going to work for others."

The wage rates are fixed for the whole season at the time of agreement itself. The wages paid to these children are quite low compared to adult wages. The wage rates vary from area to area depending upon the scarcity of labour. In some areas wage rates are fixed on daily basis and the rate per day is fixed in advance for the whole season. In some areas (Nandyala, Koilakuntla, Allagadda, Gadwal etc), the wage rates are fixed on monthly basis. The wage amount will be deducted from the advances/loans. On average children are paid about Rs 18 per day which is about 30% less than the adult female and 55% less than the adult male wage rates in the market. The agreement is vague regarding working hours because the cottonseed farmers want to keep open the option of calling the children very early or keeping them late whenever necessary. Local children generally work for 9 to 9.5 hours per day and during winter when there is more work to be done, they work for 11 to 12 hours. In case of migrant children, they are under the complete control of employers and generally work for 12-13 hours per day.

Children working in cottonseed farms are two types: local and migrant children. In most of the areas, employers recruit children from the same village or adjacent villages by contacting the parents of the children directly and make agreements with them. However, migrant children - who are brought from other areas specifically for this work - form an important segment of labour force about 50% in some areas like Koilkuntla, Sanjamala and Nandyala of Kurnool district, where seed production is highly concentrated and the availability of local labour is insufficient for the entire work. To recruit the migrant children, seed farmers mostly depend upon the middlemen called 'labour organisers' who organise the labour for them. Labour organisers mediate between seed farmers and parents of the children. It is the responsibility of seed farmer to provide accommodation and food to these migrant children. Migrant children are put in labour camps (a place where migrant children stay) and are given food. The children who are brought in this way need to stay in these camps organised by the employers and work in the fields throughout the day. They generally work 12-13 hours per day.

Inducements to extract more work from children

In order to extract more work from children employers are resorting to new techniques. One way to encourage children to work more intensively is to offer them small inducements, e.g. chocolate, biscuits, or snacks to encourage them to work harder, or to conduct competitions for fast work with the prize being a ribbon or bindi. Twice a month, children are taken to the cinema at the employers' expense. To get even more work done at the end of the day, the producers might show a video, and get the children to work while watching it.

Impact on education and health

The employment of children in cottonseed work has an adverse impact on literacy and health of children. About 60% of the children working in cottonseed fields are school dropouts. They went to school for a few years and dropped out to work in cottonseed fields. 29% of them never attended the school. Seed producers extend loans to parents of the children at a very crucial time of summer, when work is not available in the village and when they are most likely to face financial problems. Parents feel pressurised to send their daughters for work in the cottonseed fields in order to respect the agreement settled earlier in the season.

Working in cottonseed fields also has important health implications for the children involved. The use of pesticides is very high in commercial cotton cultivation (accounting for nearly 55% of the total pesticide consumption in India). Children working in the cottonseed fields are directly exposed to poisonous pesticides like Endosulphan, Monocrotophos, Cypermethrin and Mythomyl for prolonged periods. When doing cross-pollination work they stand among cotton plants which reach up to their shoulders and bend over them as the children identify flowers ready for pollination. In ordinary cotton production, in order to avoid exposure to pesticides, no work is done on the days when pesticides are sprayed. But in cottonseed cultivation cross-pollination work is carried out even during the days when pesticides are sprayed in the fields. Hence compared to workers in ordinary cotton fields, the children working in the cottonseed fields are exposed more directly to pesticides and are exposed for longer periods of time. Their exposure to Endosulphan, which is an organochlorine, affects their nervous system and the symptoms are precisely what children working in cottonseed fields often complain of: headaches, weakness, disorientation, convulsions and respiratory problems. In the absence of long term monitoring of the health of children, there is no way of assessing the permanent damage such exposure has on the health of these children.

Survey of farms producing seed for MNCs

The observations presented below are based on a survey of children working in 22 seed farms in Mahaboobnagar and Kurnool districts which are producing hybrid cottonseeds for the multinational corporations namely, Hindustan Lever, Syngenta, Mahyco/Monsanto, Advanta and Proagro. The survey was conducted during the months of December 2001 and January 2002. Of the total 22 farms 12 are producing seeds for HLL, three each for Syngenta and Mahyco-Monsanto and two each for Proagro and Advanta.

  • The total area under these 22 seed farms is 52 acres and the average farm size is 2.36 acres.
  • About 90% of the workers engaged in these farms are hired labour. Family labour constitutes only 10% of the total labour force.
  • A total of 486 children are working in these farms. On average about 9.35 children are engaged for cultivation of one acre of seed production.
  • Children, in the age group of 6-14 years, constitute about 88% of total labour force. Adult labour account for only 12% of the total labour force. Of the total child labour population girls account for 78%.
  • Most of the children employed in cottonseed farms are in debt bondage. They are recruited by the farmers on long-term contract basis (the contract is for entire crop season) by giving loans/advances to their parents. The average advance/loan amount paid against each child is Rs 1500. About 90% children employed in these farmers are recruited through this method. Though the initial agreement between the farmer and parent of the child is for only one crop season it is observed that in most cases the agreements are extended for later crop seasons through additional loans. 68% of the children currently employed were also worked in the same fields last year, indicating their parents' continued indebtedness to the farmers.
  • The socio economic background of the families of working children indicates that most of them (87%) have come from lower castes like tribal people, dalits (so-called 'casteless' or 'untouchables') and other backward castes. Marginal farmers and poor agricultural labouring families account for 65% of the total families.
  • The socio economic background of seed farmers indicates that a majority of them are rich farmers and also belong to upper castes. 75% of the seed farmers are rich farmers who mostly depend upon outside labour. About 35% of them are migrant farmers belonging to Costal region of Andhra Pradesh who have come to Kurnool and Mahaboobnagar districts for cultivation of cottonseeds mainly because of the availability of cheap labour in these districts.
  • Most of the seed farmers (74%) are sending their own children to school and are not engaging them in production.
  • The wage rates and working hours of children in these farms indicate that children are made to work long hours (10-13 hours per day) and are paid lower wages than adults. On average children are paid about 30% less than the adult female and 55% less than the adult male wage rate in the market.
  • About 60% of the children have discontinued their school education in the middle. They went to school for few years and discontinued to work in the cottonseed fields. The remaining children never attended school.
  • In Koilkuntla and Sanjamal mandlas of Kurnool district where seed production is highly concentrated seed farmers are also engaging migrant child labour in their fields. They bring children from faraway places (30-100 kilometers) by paying loans/advances to their parents. Children stay with the seed farmers through out the season. It is the responsibility seed farmer to provide accommodation and boarding facilities to these children. Migrant children are put in camps, a place where a group of 10-30 children are given accommodation and given food. The working conditions of migrant children are far worse than the local children. There are no specified working hours for them. They go to fields in the early hours about 5 am and work till evening 6-7 pm. After returning from the fields also they are made do few hours of work at employers' house. Of the total 480 children surveyed 135 of them are migrant children.

Case study of a migrant child labour (Narasamma, 12 year)

Narasamma, a 12 year old scheduled caste girl, has been working in the cottonseed fields of an employer in Alavakonda village in Sanjamala mandal (Kurnool district) for last three years. Her employer is a local farmer who produces 'Brahma' variety of hybrid cottonseeds in two acres for a reputed multinational seed company (Hindustan Lever Limited).

She came from a remote village in Prakasam district. Her native village is about 100 km away from her work place. Though her parents own three acres of dry land the income they get from their land is insufficient. They also work as agricultural labourers. Narasamma had to discontinue her studies after third class to pay back a loan of Rs 2000 taken by her father from a middlemen who arranges labour for cottonseed farmers. She joined in cottonseed fields in 1998. For first crop season (July 1998 - Dec 1998) she was paid Rs 450 per month and now she gets Rs 800. Every year during work season she comes to Alavakonda village along with other children from her native village to work in cottonseed fields. She stays with the employer about 5-6 months (July-December). Employer provides her accommodation and food during her stay with him. She stays in the employer's cattle shed, where all other migrant children are put up. The cattle shed is a small room originally constructed for keeping cattle. It does not have proper ventilation and the floor is dirty without proper cover. Part of this room is covered with cattle fodder. As employer does not have other place to accommodation migrant children he keeps them in this room. During the season when children are accommodated in this room he shifts the accommodation of his cattle to open place in front of this room.

Her daily routine starts with waking up early in the morning at 5 a.m. and getting ready by 6 a.m. to go to the fields. From 6.30 a.m. in the morning to till 7 p.m. in the evening she is in the fields doing various sorts of work. She is engaged in cross pollination till 12 a.m. Around 8 or 8.30 a.m. 15-20 minutes break is given for taking food. From 12 a.m. to 2 p.m. she is engaged in other works like weeding, picking up cotton kappas, carrying water for pesticide application etc. (Pollination and emasculation works are done in specific timings. Pollination work is done in the morning hours preferably before 12 a.m. and emasculation after 3 p.m. During this gap children are entrusted with other works.) From 2 to 3 p.m. one hour break is given for taking lunch, rest and playing with other children. From 3 to 7 p.m. she is engaged in emasculation work. She comes back home at 7.30 p.m. She is free from 7.30 to 8.30 p.m. Takes food at 8.30 p.m. and spends about an hour or so in the employer's house watching TV. During harvesting season, while watching TV she also does work like separating cotton 'kappas'.

Recalling the health problems she had faced during the last working season Narasamma stated that "I was ill for two times. First time I had heavy fever with cold, headache and vomiting because I worked during rain and got wet. That day three of my colleagues were absent and we had to do their work also. To finish the cross-pollination for that day we were requested to work even raining time and also late hours. Because of that I got fever the next day. It started with cold and headache and finally resulted in heavy fever. I did not go to doctor. I thought it was not that serious to consult the doctor. My employer brought some medicines for me and I took it. I took two days rest and after that I was OK and went back to work. The second time I got severe headache and felt giddiness which was not normal while working in the field immediately after spraying pesticides. I complained to my employer. He suggested her to go home (his residence) and take rest for that day. I went home and took rest for that day. In the evening my employer asked me if I want any medicine but I said no. I resumed my work from the next day".


India Committee of the Netherlands / Landelijke India Werkgroep - April 24, 2003