The Indian government is failing to protect the rights of hundreds of thousands of children who toil as virtual slaves in the country's silk industry, Human Rights Watch said in a new report. The 85-page report, "Small Change: Bonded Child Labour in India's Silk Industry," calls on the Indian government to implement its national laws to free and rehabilitate these "bonded children." Bound to their employers in exchange for a loan to their families, they are unable to leave while in debt and earn so little they may never be free. A majority of them are Dalits, at the bottom of India's caste system.

Children in the Ramanagaram silk worm cocoon market, the largest in Asia.© 2002 Shalu Rozario.

"The Indian government claims there are no bonded children in India," said Zama Coursen-Neff, counsel to Human Rights Watch's children's rights division. "In fact, they're everywhere. They are easy to find." Human Rights Watch interviewed children, employers, government officials and members of nongovernmental organizations in three states that form the core of India's sari and silk industries: Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Tamilnadu.

At every stage of the silk industry, bonded children as young as five years old work 12 or more hours a day, six and a half or seven days a week. Children making silk thread dip their hands in boiling water that burns and blisters them. They breathe smoke and fumes from machinery, handle dead worms that cause infections, and guide twisting threads that cut their fingers. As they assist weavers, children sit at cramped looms in damp, dim rooms. They do not go to school and are often beaten by their employers. By the time they reach adulthood, they are impoverished, illiterate, and often crippled by the work, the report said.

Human Rights Watch first investigated bonded child labour in India in 1996. Since then, the Supreme Court made rehabilitation of child workers a legal requirement, and India's National Human Rights Commission has successfully pressured some local governments to act. "The government has taken a number of steps in the right direction since our first investigation. The National Human Rights Commission's involvement is especially encouraging," Coursen-Neff said. "However, many of the small improvements are now being rolled back."

High-level government officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch denied that children were bonded or work in factories; they claimed to have therefore shifted their focus to raising public awareness about child labour, instead of freeing children and prosecuting employers. "Most government efforts never reached beyond high-profile industries like carpets and beedi cigarettes," said Coursen-Neff. "Instead of living up to its promises, the Indian government is starting to backtrack, claiming the problem is being solved. Our research shows that it is not."

Human Rights Watch also urged the government to recognize and address the connection between caste and bondage. Coursen-Neff pointed out that caste-based violence and discrimination, not just poverty, keep many Dalit families in bondage. "Caste is one of the foundations of the bonded labour system," said Coursen-Neff. "Dalits are denied access to land, forced to work in degrading conditions, and expected to perform free labour. Upper-caste communities inflict violence and economic boycotts on Dalits who challenge their expected social roles, keeping Dalit families in bondage and a perpetual state of poverty."

Human Rights Watch called on international donors to pressure the national and state governments in India to enforce the child labour and bonded labour laws. International donors are increasingly funding some schools for former child workers. "Funding schools is important, but international donors should do more," said Coursen-Neff. "Donors must pressure the Indian government to enforce its own laws to free bonded children. Otherwise, schools won't reach children who can't leave work voluntarily - those who are working under force."

Human Rights Watch also called on the national and state governments to greatly expand cooperation with nongovernmental organizations to address the problem of bonded child labour.

Major Silk States

  • Karnataka is India's primary producer of silk thread. There, production still depends on bonded children. Most are under age 14 and are Dalit or Muslim. In 2001, the state government promulgated an ambitious plan to eliminate all child labour, but it was not in operation at the time of Human Rights Watch's investigation one year later. A nine-year-old boy bonded in Karnataka told Human Rights Watch: "At work the supervisor used to beat me with a belt. He tied me up and beat me with a belt on my back. He did this two or three times. . . . He tied a chain that was attached to the wall to my leg. . . . [The owner beat me] if I didn't do my work properly."

  • In Uttar Pradesh, most attention has been paid to child labour in the carpet industry, not silk. While bonded child labour in carpets has not been eliminated, vigilance from the National Human Rights Commission and pressure from domestic and international activists has provoked the government to better enforce the law and to provide schools and other social services. Much less attention has been paid to silk weaving, where child labour that was in factories has been pushed into individual homes. A 14 year-old boy who worked as a weaver's assistant in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, told Human Rights Watch that he could not leave his loom owner because he was paying off a loan, which in two years he had only reduced from Rs. 2,500 (U.S. $52) to Rs. 475 (U.S. $9.90). "The owner pays [a small salary] but deducts for the advance [loan]," he said. "He deducts but won't write off the whole advance. . . . We only make enough to eat."

  • In Tamilnadu, which has successfully identified more bonded labourers than any other state, most state initiatives have focused on children working in match and fireworks manufacture. However, the state government has simply abandoned Supreme Court-mandated rehabilitation of child workers for those children found after 1997, in clear violation of the court's order. In Kanchipuram district, a major silk sari weaving area in Tamilnadu, child bondage flourishes openly. A 13 year-old girl working in a silk weaving factory in Kanchipuram told Human Rights Watch: "Always [the weavers and owners] are beating me - I don't like to work. They always scold and shout. They beat me on the back and head. They are always knocking their fists on my head or hitting me with a comb [wood piece in the loom]. . . . We don't play at all."