In recent years, the issue of child labour in general and child labour in cottonseed production in particular have received lot of attention from government, international agencies like ILO, Unicef, UNDP, media and NGOs in Andhra Pradesh. Eradication of child labour is one of the priority issues of the present government in the state. It has taken a stand that 'Any child out of school is a child labourer and universalisation of primary education is the only way to completely eliminate the child labour'. It has initiated a number of steps during last three years to address this issue. As part of its initiatives the state government has launched a massive state-wide campaign against child labour from August 2 to 12th 2002. The issue of child labour in hybrid cottonseed production has received special attention during this campaign and about 120 cases were booked against cottonseed farmers in Mahaboobnagar and Kurnool districts for employing the children. ILO/IPEC and UNDP have also initiated special projects for addressing the issue of child labour in areas where cottonseed production is concentrated.
Several NGOs like MVF (Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiah Foundation) APMS (Andhra Pradesh Mahila Samatha and SHECS (Sri Hanumantharaya Educational Charitable Society) are also actively involved in elimination of child labour in some parts of the state. The issue of child labour in cottonseed fields was first brought to the lime light in 1998 by MVF which has been actively working for eradication of all forms of child labour in the state since 1990. During 1990s MVF has successfully withdrawn thousands of children from work including the children working in cottonseed fields and put them in schools in Ranga Reddy district. Inspired by the experience of MVF in addressing the issue of child labour in Ranga Reddy district, several NGOs like SHECS, Sramika Vikasa Kendram, LITDS (Layola Integrated Tribal Development Society) and Koneru working in other parts of the state have initiated similar experiments in their areas21. In recent years the media has also started giving wide publicity to the ongoing efforts of government, NGOs and other institutions in elimination of child labour. The issue of child labour in cottonseed fields received special attention from media and number of reports have been published on this issue.
The growing concern about child labour problem in the state put the entire cottonseed industry, which employs children in production of seeds in a big way under severe criticism. The role of companies in perpetuating the child labour problem is being questioned. The MNCs, which claims that they are committed to socially responsible business practices, have to face severe criticism both from national and international agencies.
Response from MNCs
Responding to the issue of use of child labour in production of its cottonseeds HLL denies any direct contact with seed farmers and also the use of forced child labour as such in production of seeds. As a response to a news report 'Even Multinationals Employ Child Labour for Profit' published in 'The Hindu Business Line, 21-6-2001', the General Manager in charge of Corporate communications, HLL, in a press statement issued on 25-6-2001, states that 'HLL has third-party seed organisers who get seeds produced from numerous farmers on sale/purchase basis and supply them to HLL. In no case, HLL deals with any farmer, either for production or for payments. Though HLL does not control or influence seed organisers' selection/dealing with farmers, the seed organiser typically supplies parental seeds to farmers at a cost with a buy-back arrangement of the resultant seed production. To carry out actual production, the farmer and his entire family work in the fields and employ additional labour whenever required. HLL or the seed organiser has no direct or indirect role in the farmer's practice of either taking help from his family members or employing labour'22.
In a communication to the NOVIB a developmental organisation, a representative of Unilever makes similar observation stating that 'HLL has no direct contacts with the farmers themselves. In this situation I can affirm that HLL does not make use of child labour in the context of her cottonseed activities. Furthermore I can affirm that the suppliers of HLL, in this case the seed companies, do not make use of child labour in their activities. HLL is convinced that her suppliers act in accordance with her wishes because monitoring takes place by field visits, oral questions and frequent confirmation of these requirements. With regard to the actual cultivation of cottonseed the situation is less clear, we do not believe that forced labour by girls is used in the cultivation of cottonseed which we purchase. In the agrarian sector in India, just like in other developing countries, it happens a lot that children are working on the farms of their families. This is a way of life in societies where children are seen as active member of the family and in that capacity have to contribute to the family enterprise. This naturally differs from any other form of forced labour'.
HLL has recently transferred its seed business to its subsidiary 'Paras Extra Growth Seed Ltd' and formed a joint venture partnership with Emergent Genetics. Participating in a consultative consultative meeting of seed companies, NGOs and government departments against child labour in Hyderabad on August 3rd 2002, Mr. Mohan Rao person in charge of Human Resource Development, Paras Extra Growth Seeds states that 'we acknowledge that there is a problem of child labour in hybrid cottonseed production. The problem is real and we are committed to address this problem. It is an industry problem also. Every one in seed industry has to pay serious attention to this issue.'
Interacting with the author the local representatives of Mahyco, Advanta and Proagro have expressed almost similar opinions about the child labour issue.
According to in-charge of production for Mahyco company in Kurnool 'As a company we do not employ any child labour nor we encourage our suppliers. We are not responsible for the practices of local farmers with whom we do not directly make any contracts. We agree that child labour is prevalent in production of seeds and the entire seed industry has to pay serious attention to this issue. We have to look for new technologies which reduces the requirement of labour in production process. Our company through its own research has released the new cotton hybrids using CMS (Cytoplasmic genetic Male Sterility) technology23, which reduces the requirement of labour in production of seeds by half.'24
Advanta which has adopted seed village approach for production of its seeds and is directly involved in making contacts with seed producers in some areas also avoids owning any responsibility for child labour situation on the technical ground that it does not employ children directly. A local representative of the company states that 'Our company does not employ any child labour and we cannot enforce any regulations on the seed farmers since they are not employed by us. Most of the farmers who supply seed for us are small farmers. They primarily depend on their own family labour including their children for cultivation of seeds and employment of out side child labour is less'25.
Though seed farmers are not employees of Advanta it can exert substantial control over them. The legal agreement between Advanta and its seed farmers clearly indicates Advanta has substantial control over the production process and practices of the farmers. To quote from the legal agreement Advanta makes with its seed farmers for production of seeds 'the grower (seed farmer) agrees to carry out under the supervision and guidance of the officer/ representative of the company, the entire work relating to preparation and ploughing of scheduled land, attend to other agricultural operations such as proper and timely irrigation, interculture, application of proper quantities of fertilizers, application of pesticides when required, roughing, pollination, attend weeding operations, male chopping etc. and finally at the time as may be advised by the company harvest the seeds. During the currency of this agreement, the representatives, employees, agents or servants of the company shall have a right to enter the scheduled land for assessing the progress of cultivation and production of hybrid seeds and to ascertain and verify whether the grower has followed the advise render by the company pursuant to the provisions of this agreement and the grower agrees to allow such representatives, employees, agents or servants of the company to have ingress and engress to the land.'
Though Advanta has recently added a special clause in its agreement with seed farmers stating that farmers should comply with all the central and state level laws regarding child labour. No serious efforts were made by the company to implement this clause.
The issue of child labour has brought the Syngenta under severe criticism from investment companies in the West who have put pressure on the company to address the issue26. Realizing that the issue of child labour is exposing its company to a significant reputational risk in addition to attracting negative media attention the top management of the company has decided to take a proactive role in addressing the issue. Speaking at a consultative meeting of seed companies, NGOs and governments departments against child labour in Hyderabad on August 3rd 2002 Dr. Shanthu Shataram, head of stakeholders relations, Syngenta states that 'We at Syngenta are very much concerned about the child labour problem in cottonseed production. We donot want to escape from our responsibility. Though we have not created the child labour problem in the process we have become part of the problem. Now we want to become part of the solution by taking necessary measures to eliminate the problem.'
Syngenta has initiated some measures during last one year to discourage the use of child labour in production process. For the first time during the current crop season company has put a special clause in written agreements which it makes with seed organizers stating that 'children should not be used in cultivation of seeds'. It has also requested its seed organizers to decentralize the production by selecting more number of small and marginal farmers for production of their seeds. The company management is of the opinion that the usage of child labour is less in small and marginal farmers fields compared to rich farmers. It has initiated a dialogue with local NGOs like MVF for taking up special projects to address the issue of child labour.
It is true that most of the MNCs or their subsidiaries have no direct agreements with the farmers themselves either for production or for payments but their claims about having no control over farmers and production process, employment of child labour by the farmers are not true. Although most of the companies are not directly involved in production process and making agreements with seed farmers they exert substantial control over farmers and production process by way of supplying foundation seed, fixing the procurement prices, quality supervisions etc. It is the company which fixes the prices paid to the farmers. It is the company which set the quality standards to be followed by the farmers for cultivation of seeds in the fields. Company representatives with help of seed organisers make frequent visits to the farmers' fields to check whether or not they are following norms prescribed by the company while cultivating the seeds.
Company representatives with the help organizers make a minimum of three field visits, at the time of rouging (the removal of off-types and diseased plants from with in the fields before they start flowering is known as rouging) boll formation and crossing work They also offer technical advice to them about the use of fertilizers and pesticides, precautions to be taken while doing cross-pollination work etc.
With regard to the farming practices of its seed producers (small farmers mostly depending upon own family labour, non employment of child labour) companies observations are not true. As we have already explained in section one most of the farmers involved in production of cottonseeds are rich and depend mostly on outside labour. Outside labour accounts for about 90% of the total workforce in cottonseed production. Seed production is highly capital intensive and those farmers who have enough capital can only venture into this activity. It is also labour intensive and even if it is a small-scale production of one acre it requires large number of labourers which can not be managed by family labour alone.
To sum up the activities of MNCs in the area of cottonseed business in India are not certainly in tune with what they claim about their commitment to socially responsible corporate behaviour. Though they are not directly involved in employing children they have substantial control over entire production process and seed farmers who actually employ children for producing seed for these companies.