Seeds of Bondage: Female Child Bonded Labour in Hybrid Cottonseed Production in Andhra Pradesh


Terms and Conditions of Employment

As already noted, cultivation of hybrid cottonseeds depends mainly on human labour and that too on the labour of female children. What are the terms and conditions of their employment? How are they different from other forms of labour arrangements prevailing in the area? What are the new techniques followed by employers to extract more work from the female children? These questions are discussed in this section.

The terms and conditions of employing female children in cottonseed fields indicates the emergence of a 'new system of bonded labour' different from the traditional forms of bonded labour in the study area.

The essential features of this new system of bondage include:

  • Employment of female children on long term contract basis by paying advances and loans to their parents
  • Long hours of work
  • Lower than the market wage
  • New technique of extracting more work from female children by offering various incentives like showing movies, giving chocolates, biscuits, ribbons, lunch boxes and conducting sports and night literacy classes.

Long term contracts and debt bondage

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 labour before starting off the seed cultivation.

Recruitment of children

Children working in cottonseed fields are of two types:

  • Local children who are recruited from the same village or adjacent villages
  • Migrant children, who are brought from other areas specifically for this work.

Migrant children form an important segment of labour force in same areas like Koilkuntla, Sanjamala and Nandyala in Kurnool district, where seed production is highly concentrated and availability of local labour is insufficient to do the entire work. To recruit the migrant children, seed employers mostly depend upon the middlemen, who organise the labour for them. In one village in Sanjamala mandal there are about 1000 migrant child labourers, who are brought from backward pockets of Prakasam district. In this village, nearly 70% of the children working in seed fields are migrant labourers.

Before starting off the season, the employers send middlemen to different places in search of labour. On behalf of the employers, middlemen conclude the agreements with the parents of the children. Employers also give some money to middlemen so that they can pay advances to the parents at the time of making the agreements. Middlemen receive some commission from the employers for arranging labour.

With regard to the recruitment of local children, employers directly contact the parents of the children and make agreements with them.

Child labour surveys

In some areas where the employers are migrant farmers, the way they recruit the children is very interesting. Migrant farmers switch from one place to another in search of cheap labour. When they want to start seed cultivation in any village, they first find out whether there are enough female children available for work in the village. Only after that do they consider other aspects of seed cultivation.

The migrant seeds producer's first go to the village and enquire about the availability of children in the labour colony where agricultural labourers mostly reside. They conduct exhaustive house to house survey. Their survey is similar to the survey conducted by the government for population census. They find out details like how many female children are there in each family, their age and whether they would work or not. Later they meet the parents of the children and enquire how many of them would come forward to send their children for work throughout the season. Only when they are confident of getting adequate number of children for work, they consider the other aspects of seed production (fertile land, irrigation facility etc.) and then decide whether to start seed cultivation there or not. Generally they start the cultivation in April or May. This programme of surveying takes place two months before the cultivation is started.

Whether it is migrant or local labour the main agreement is the same. The employers specifically insist upon the parents that under any circumstances they should send their children for work without break throughout the season. The wage rate, whether daily, monthly or seasonal, is fixed for the whole season at the time of the agreement itself. Children have to work throughout the season at the predetermined wages. With regard to daily wage rates, the wage is paid only for the working days. Wage is not paid for the days when there is no work in the field. With regard to working hours, for those employed on monthly and seasonal payments bases, working hours are not fixed. Children should be at the beck and call of the employers. The agreement with regard to working hours is vague even in case of the daily wage labourers. The employers do not specifically mention about working hours keeping the option of calling the children whenever they are required.

Loans and advances

In order to make the parents abide by the agreement the employers give them advances/loans. The advance payments are made in two installments: once before the start of the season and once after. Small amounts like Rs.200-300 are given before start of the season. They give large amounts ranging from Rs.1000-3000 after the commencement of the season. Whether the parents of the children ask for the advance or not, they are still given to make the parents comply with the agreement. This money would be deducted later from the wages. In addition to advance payments, employers also give loans to the parents who are in need. In most of the places it is reported that no interest is charged on advance payments and small amount of loans. If the loan amount is big, only then do they charge interest at the rate of 24% per annum on that amount.
Table 9: Details of loans/advances taken by the parents of working children from employers
Amounts (Rs)
No. of families that took advances
No. of families that took loans


Regarding the money given in advance to the labourers, one employer states that "We need the children for work in the cottonseed field all through the year. If the children stop coming in the middle, 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."

Of the total 380 children surveyed we have data on the amount of advances/loans taken by the parents of 320 children.

Out of 320, 312 have received at least some amount of money as advance from the employers. Only eight did not take any money in advance. It is reported that the employers also offered advance payments to these eight people but they themselves refused to take. Parents of 134 children have even taken some money as loan. Table 9 gives the details of loans and advances taken from seed producers by the parents of working children.
Table 10: Number of years working with the same employer
No. of girls
For the previous 5 years
For the previous 4 years
For the previous 3 years
For the previous 2 years
For the previous 1 year
Present year


Duration of the contract

Although the agreement is for only one crop season it is observed that in most of the cases the children are compelled to work for the same employer for years together because of the pending debts of their parents to the employers. 70% of the children who are working in cottonseed fields at present have worked the previous year also. 57.5% have been working for 2 years and 12.5% have been working for the past five years (table 10).

Wage rates

We have already noted that the wages paid to the children are decided in advance for the entire season. The wage rates vary from area to area and also according to the age and work experience of children. Three types of wage rates are noticed in the study area i.e. daily, monthly and seasonal wage rates. Though daily and seasonal wage rates are reported in some areas, it is the monthly wage rate, which is prevalent in most of the areas.

During 1999-2000, daily wage rates paid to the children varied between Rs.12 to 18. In labour scarcity areas like Sanjamala, Koilkuntla and Nandyala the daily wage rates varied between Rs.15-18. The children below 10 years are paid Rs.15-16 and children above 10 years were paid Rs.17-18. In Mahaboobnagar and Rangareddy districts, where the problem of labour shortage is less, the younger children are paid Rs.12-16 and older children Rs.14-16.

Monthly wage rates also varied between Rs.400 to 1,200 depending upon the age group of children and the demand for labour in that area. The younger children are paid Rs.400 to 700 per month and older children are paid Rs.700 to 1,200. Seasonal wage rate agreement is not a common practice. A small number of children were employed on this condition and their payments varied between Rs.4,000 to 4,500 for the entire season.

Monthly and seasonal wage rates are generally preferred for employing the migrant children while for local children daily wage rates are preferred by the employers.
Table 11: Average wage rates paid to female children in 1999-2000
Age group
Daily wage
Below 10 years
10 and above years

An analysis of the average wage rates for the younger and older children in the study area indicates that younger children received Rs.13.5 and older ones Rs.14.75 as daily wage. Rs.400 and Rs.4,000 are the monthly and seasonal wage rates respectively for younger children, and Rs.550 and Rs.4,500 for older ones (table 11).

As already mentioned, the most important aspect to be noted here is that whether wage rates are fixed on daily or monthly or seasonal basis the agreement is for one entire crop season. The children have to work for the same employer through out the season.

The wages paid to the children are much lower when compared to the wages paid to the adults. In 1999-2000, the daily wage rate for adult men varied between Rs.25-50 and for adult women between Rs.15-25.

Working hours

There is no specific working hours for the children working in the cottonseed fields. Those employed on daily wage rate basis generally work for 9 to 9.5 hours per day. Some times they work even for 11 hours. They are at the disposal of their employers from 7 a.m. to 6.30 or 7 p.m. Generally they work in the fields from 9 a.m. to 6 or 6.30 p.m. However, whenever the work is more, they go by 7 a.m. and work till 6 or 6.30 p.m. In the afternoon they are given one-hour interval for lunch. In the words of Lakshmi who is working in the fields for 5 years: "Except in the night, we have to go to work whenever they call us during the day time. Daily we get into work one hour earlier than all the other labourers in the village. We come back much later than everybody in the evening. Sometimes they ask us to come very early for work. Those days we work right from early morning until evening."

Migrant children and local children who are employed on monthly and seasonal wage rates work for more hours than others. They are completely at the disposal of their employers and expected to work even in early morning and late evening hours.

Case study of a migrant child labour

Narsamma, 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. She came from a remote village in Prakasam district. Though her parents own three acres of dry land the income they get from their land is insufficient. They also work as agricultural labourers.

Narsamma had to discontinue her studies to pay back a loan of Rs.2000 taken by her father from middlemen who arranges labour for cottonseed farmers. She joined in cottonseed fields in 1998. First year she was paid Rs.450 per month and now she gets Rs.800. Every year during season she comes to Alavakonda village along with other children from her native village to work in cottonseed fields. She stays with the employer for 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.

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 11 a.m. Around 8-8.30 a.m. 15-20 minutes break is given for taking food. From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. she is engaged in other works like weeding, picking up cotton kapas, carrying water for pesticide application etc. 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 kapas.

Incentives to children

In order to extract more work from the children, employers are resorting to new techniques of pleasing them and making them more obedient. They are providing various types of incentives to the children for making them happy so that they can extract more work from them. Children like games, songs, food, watching TV and movies. Knowing children's psychology and their likings and dislikings well, the seed producers are including all those programmes in which the children show interest as a part of the work.

It is a very common practice in all the areas by the employers that they take the children for movies to the nearby town on their own expenditure once in a month or 15 days. They hire a jeep or a tractor for this purpose. Almost all the employers have television sets (TVs). After the children return from fields in the evenings, they ask them to assemble at their houses and show them programmes on TV. The main purpose of showing TV in the evenings is to get some work done by the children. The work of separating cotton kapas is done at home. This work is done happily by the children while watching the TV.

Employers also give the children chocolates and biscuits while they are working. They conduct competitions among them in the work and tell them that whoever does the work faster, they would be getting incentives like ribbons and bindis. Now and then, they even conduct games during lunchtime and in the evenings. In some areas, employers also provide tiffin boxes to the children working in their fields.

Inducements to extract more work from children

In order to extract more work from children, employers offer several incentives to them. They give chocolates, biscuits or snacks to encourage them to work harder or conduct competitions for fast work with the prize being a ribbon or bindi. Twice a month, children are taken for movies to the nearby town at the employers' expenses. To get extra work done even at the end of the day, the employers might show a video, and get the girls to work (separating cotton kapas from the capsules) while watching it. From the employer's viewpoint, these are same of the techniques, which make children happy so that they have a incentive to work hard. In the words of a seed farmer: "It is easy to make them (children) work to our instructions. But we have to observe their psychology. Children like games, songs, and movies. They like eatables. If we find out what they like and make them happy, they listen to us and do every work we ask them to do with enthusiasm.... Children get tired while working, don't they? We make them happy in order to help them overcome their tiredness and make them work more. That's why we do all this. The expenditure on them is not much. What we spend on their movies, eatables, etc., is not a large amount. If we spend Rs.10 on them this way they do for us Rs.100 worth work."

From the employer's viewpoint, these are same of the techniques, which make children happy so that they have an incentive to work hard. It is observed that female children in many areas because of these incentives prefer the work in cottonseed fields to other works. In the study area, girls are employed in various kinds of works like weeding, sowing, paddy and transplanting. However, among all these works, only cross-pollination in cottonseed fields is mostly attracting the girls.

In the words of 11-year-old Bhagyamma who pressed her parents to send her to the work in the cottonseed fields than to other works, "If it is cottonseed field work, we have all the children of our age. We can work together. They take us for movies. Show us TV. They give ribbons. There won't be any of these things in other works".

In recent years same employers also started literacy programmes for children who are working in their fields11. They are running night schools for these children and paying the teachers. They are also providing slates, blackboards, chalk pieces etc.

Comparison with other forms of labour arrangements

So far we have examined the main features of the terms and conditions of employing the female children in cottonseed fields. What kind of labour arrangement does it indicate?

We find mainly three types of labour arrangements in the villages of Telangana and Rayalaseema regions:

  • Daily wage system
  • Gutta (Contract) system
  • Jeetham (Bonded labour) system

Daily Wage System

In daily wage system, the agreement between employer and labourer is limited for only one day. The labour has the freedom to choose the employers of his choice. Wage is calculated for one day's work. The normal working time is 7.30 to 8 hours in a day.

Contract System

In this system, the wage is fixed not on the basis of working hours but on the basis of amount of work done. The labourer is free to determine how the work should be done and the time to be taken. Generally in the contract system, the agreement is settled between the employer and a group of workers. The employer settles the agreement with the group leader. The employer does not have any control on who all should constitute a group and how they should work. The contract system is in practice extensively in works such as paddy transplantation and harvesting, picking up cotton kapas etc.

Jeetham system

Jeetham system is nothing but a modern form of Vetti (traditional bonded labour) system which was widely in practice in Telangana Region prior to 1950. The main feature of the Vetti system is the hereditary nature of bondage, which is based on credit relations between labourer and employer. The labourers used to languish with the same employer generations together. In this system, the labourer does not have any freedom. They are under the complete control of the employer who advances loans to them. Using extra economic forms of controlling labour also forms an important element in this system. Employers often resort to coercive methods to control the labour. This system has almost disappeared now and is replaced with the less exploitative system of Jeetham (Shantha Sinha, 1990).

Though the system of Jeetham also has many of these fearures, it is different from Vetti system in one important aspect. Here the bondage is not hereditary. Family members of the labourer are not obliged to work with the same employer. The labourer has the freedom to leave the employer once he clears the loans. Several studies have reported that even this 'Jeetham' system is on decline nowadays.

The most important aspect to be noted here is that whether it is Vetti or Jeetham system the labourers, who are involved in it, are only adult males and boys. Women, particularly female children, are completely excluded from these systems. Till recently, there used to be a strong social norm in the study area against employing women as a bonded or permanent labour.

The nature of labour-employer relations in cottonseed fields do not exactly fit into any one of these three systems mentioned above. This is a new system of labour bondage that has started recently with the introduction of hybrid seed production. However, it has many common features with the Jeetham system.

Similar to the Jeetham system, even in this, credit is an important element. Loan/advances are given to labourers against pledging their labour. The labourers have to work with the employers till the debt is repaid. In the same way, the other features of Jeetham system like, not determining specific working hours, making labourers work for long hours and working at a single employer for many years can be observed.

But, like in the Jeetham system we don't find subjection of workers to degradation, physical abuse and making them do all kinds of works.

Keeping the labour under light control and getting more work done with them is seen in both the systems. However, like the employers in Jeetham system, the cottonseed employers do not threaten or abuse the labour in getting the work done. In the changed context they are adapting new methods to keep the labourers under their control.


India Committee of the Netherlands / Landelijke India Werkgroep - June 6, 2003