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


Preference for Female Child Labour:
Low Wages, Long Hours and High Work Intensity

The present section examines the reasons for employers' preference for female children over adults and also boys for various activities especially the activity of cross-pollination in cottonseed fields. It is observed that the generally stated reasons of employers are different from the real reasons.

The seed producers generally state the following reasons in support of their contention that only small children, especially girls can do the work of cross-pollination.

The emasculation and pollination work in cottonseed production involves a lot of dexterity. It needs to be done carefully, patiently and delicately. Lot of concentration is needed while doing this work. The children especially girls can do this work properly as they have nimble fingers. Adults lack these qualities. More over, children can do this work faster. The female children are more suitable for this work than boys because they exhibit a lot of patience while doing the work.

The adult females can not do this work especially when they are having monthly periods. If they do this work when they are having periods, it is inauspicious, harmful and might result in failure of crop.

It is observed that the generally stated reasons for preferring female children are different from that of the real reasons. The employers are deliberately spreading these notions in order to avoid the adult labour, who are willing to do the work in cottonseed fields. They have strong economic and political reasons behind spreading these notions. In detailed and close interactions with some of the employers, they do admit that they have other real reasons for preferring female children to adults and boys.

The main reasons are that:

  • Girls' wages are much lower than adult wages;
  • They work longer hours;
  • They are willing to work more intensively;
  • They are generally easier to control.

Table 12: Comparison of average daily wage rates (hourly wages) for adult and children*

Daily wage rate (hourly wage rate)
14.2 (1.42)
14.7 (1.83)
18.5 (2.31)
27.0 (3.38)
* Girls' wage rates are specifically for cottonseed work. The rates for men, women and boys are based on an average wage paid in cottonseed as well and on other local crops.

Low wages

A comparison of daily wage rates of adults and children in the study area indicates that girls' daily wage rates are significantly lower than the adult male and female wages (table 12). Men's daily wages are 90% higher than those of girls. Indeed girls' wages are even lower than men's wages reported in table 11, for they (i) do not include the additional 2-3 rupees given byemployers to male labourers for liquor consumption, and (ii) do not include men's work with bulls or machines which could fetch much higher wages (for instance, one long day ploughing would fetch Rs.100) or off-farm wages (e.g. mason work earns Rs.75 per day). Women's daily wages are comparatively much closer to those of girls but still significantly higher. Women's daily wages are about 30% higher than those of girls' wages.

Long hours of work

Female children on cottonseed farms also work for longer hours than both adult men and women on daily wages. The female child employed on daily wage rates work 9 - 9.30 hours per day (9 a.m. to 6 - 6.30 p.m.) with 1 hour for lunch and are at the beck and call of their employers for a further 3 - 4 hours (7 a.m. - 7 p.m.). During peak periods they work 11 hours (7 a.m. to 6 - 6.30 p.m.). Adult labourers, by contrast, work 7½ to 8 hours with 1 hour for lunch (10 a.m. to 5.30 - 6.00 p.m.).

In the words of Lakshmi, a girl who has been working for 5 years for her employer: "Except in me 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 other labourers in the village. We come back much later than everybody else does in the evening. Sometimes they ask us to come very early for work. Those days we work right from early morning till evening."

If we adjust wages for these longer hours (girl's average of 10 hours, adults average of 8) the hourly wage differential between adult and female child labour widen (see Table 12). Men's wages per hour are 138% and women's wages per hour are 62% higher than female child wages.

High work intensity

In addition to working cheaply and for longer hours, employers can get the girls to work much more productively per hour (which is not reflected in the adjusted daily wages per hour). One cotton fields supervisor commented on the tendency for girls to work harder than adult labourers: "Adults cannot do the (cross-pollination) work as properly as children. Not only that, adults are a headache. The work needs concentration. They have to search every plant for flowers in its branches and between the leaves carefully and do the crossing. This work cannot be done while chatting and without concentration. Adults have a lot of avocations (other interests). They don't work properly chatting with others. Children listen to whatever we say and thus the work can be got done. Adults waste time for things like smoking, passing urine etc. We can't control them as we control the children... Not only that, they can't do as quickly as the children do. One girl can do the work of three adults. Each day they have to go around the field for many times, plucking the flowers and crossing. Adults get tired going around for just 2-3 times. Children can go around any number of times. Adults come leisurely at 11 a.m. to work. As soon as it is 5 p.m. they start back home. Even when asked, they don't do the work left over in the field. They ask for more money. These kinds of problems won't arise with children. They arrive promptly at 9 a.m. in the morning and stay late in the evening. They even work for an extra hour when they are asked to." [emphasis added]

One way to encourage children to work even more intensively was to offer them small inducements. As already discussed in previous section, various incentives like giving chocolates, biscuits, ribbons, bindis and showing movies offered by the employers are encouraging the girls to work hard.

In the context of a significant decline in the ability to force labour to work harder by physical abuse, giving small inducements in order to get a female child labourer to work harder is more socially acceptable (and considerably cheaper than alcohol - the usual inducement for adult male labour). As this same supervisor remarked: "Times have changed. These are not the olden days where one can get the work done with threatening, thrashing or scolding the labourer. They will rebel if we do like that now. They have a lot of awareness. Even we have had to change. If we respect and look after them well, they too will work well. Otherwise no."

In sum, female child are preferred over adults because they are much cheaper to hire, will work longer hours with less complaint, will work more diligently and more intensively per hour, are easier to induce to work harder and are generally easier to control.

Why not boys?

Table 12 shows that the daily wage rates of boys are much closer to those of girls. Yet boys are not preferred for cottonseed work. When we asked employers why they prefer girls to boys, they argued that girls are slightly better and are generally more available for work than boys because labouring families tend to educate boys and send daughters out to work. As one cottonseed producer explained: "Boys also work well. But they don't take as much interest in their work as the girls. Not only that, generally boys are not available for labour. These days many are going to school. They (parents) want to get their sons educated. If there is one girl and one boy in a family, they send the girl out to work and boy to school. They contemplate sending their son to labour."

Parents encourage boys to follow fathers out of agricultural work and away from the conditions of bondage associated with it and encourage girls to follow their mothers into agricultural labour. The percentage of non-school going girls is higher than that of boys in all the areas.

Separating the girls from the women: Two ideas spread by producers

But how do seed employers succeed in employing female child labour over more expensive and less controllable adult female labour? The difference between men's wages and girls' wages is so high that few men come forward for girls' work in cross-pollination or harvesting. Yet the wages of adult women and girls are much closer. We found that underemployed adult women do indeed seek cross-pollination and harvesting work. Yet employers - unwilling to employ women on terms commensurate with the going rate for women's work on nearby cotton and groundnut farm - have responded by banning girls over 14 or those who have reached puberty at the time of the agreement (ie. when the loan is advanced). Some supervisors even spread ideas about the inferiority of adult female labour in order to prevent from women coming forward once cultivation has commenced. One of these ideas is that if post pubescent female children work in their fields, it would be inauspicious and might result in crop failure (building on the belief by some castes that women should not engage in any cultivation when they menstruate). One employer admitted that these ideas are a sham and spread simply to prevent adult women from seeking employment.

[I = interviewer, R = respondent]
(I) Do the girls become unfit for this (emasculation and pollination) work once they attain puberty? Is it sinful or harmful for girls to work if they have their period? Many (other supervisors from other villages) told me this.
(R) There is nothing of that sort. Our elders say that the women should not do anything in the time of their periods. They say it's harmful. That is why they think like that. We don't take into work the girls who have attained puberty because, if we employ them a lot of adult women would be after us asking for work. We want only children. The agreement with them is that 'adolescent children and adults are of no use!'
(I) Do you yourself say this to villagers (i.e. idea about pubescent girls being harmful to cultivation) when you go to a new village for cultivation?
(R) Yes. We say this in advance when we go to a new village inquiring about labour. Otherwise, people would be after us. We also provide work all through the year. So everybody hoping there would work for them.
(I) You say that only in order to avoid adults [coming forward] and not that you believe it. Is that so?
(R) That is it. After all, we are educated. Don't we know even that?

Most supervisors also advance the notion that only girls - and not adult women - have the necessary skills, dexterity and patience necessary for cross-pollinating work. This is old, familiar 'nimble fingers argument'. As one supervisor commented: "Only children can do the work in the seed field. Adults cannot.... The work of crossing the flowers in the fields lasts for 6-7 months. This work has to be done daily and regularly. The crossing should be done on the same day the flower blooms. If that becomes late, fake seeds are produced. Only children can do this work well, with care and patience. This work has to be done very delicately. Emasculation, plucking flowers, crossing the male and female flowers should be done very carefully. The hands of the children are delicate."

Yet in the early 1970s when hybrid cottonseed production was first introduced in coastal Andhra, adult women did much of the cross-pollinating work. It was only from mid 1970s that the employers started hiring female children for this work (Venkateswarlu and Da Corta, 2001). Moreover, it doesn't explain why girls are mostly hired for harvesting (100 days). It is to be understood that these ideas have been advanced in an effort to divide women and girls and replace more expensive, less controllable adult women with cheaper, more controllable girls. As this same supervisor commented succinctly, when interrogated further: "In cottonseed cultivation, more than half of our capital goes toward labour charges. If we employ adults, the expenditure becomes double. What will remain for us?"

To sum up, employers have strong economic and political reasons behind taking female children into work. It is very advantageous for the employers to hire female children as labourers. We have noted that about half of the capital is spent on only labour charges. The more the labour charges are cut down, the more are the chances for profit. It is profitable for the employers to take female children into work because the wages paid to them are far lesser than the wages paid to the adults. In addition to this, employers also can get more work done from the female children than adults.

Another important aspect in this is, it is easier for employers to control the female children than adults. They listen to whatever they say. They never talk back to their employers. They never grumble that the conditions at the working place are bad. If it is female children, the employers have more control over labour process.

In sum, girls are preferred over adults because they are much cheaper to hire, will work langer hours with less complaint, will work more diligently and more intensively per hour, are easier to induce to work harder and are generally easier to control.


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