Multinational seed giants, including Monsanto, Syngenta, Unilever and Bayer as well as Indian companies continue to benefit from child labour despite efforts by international NGOs and Indian public interest groups to eliminate this pernicious practice, concludes a report by the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN).

The report, Child Labor in Hybrid Cottonseed Production in Andhra Pradesh: Recent Developments, released last month, sought to evaluate the progress made on an action plan that was adopted last year by multinational corporations (MNCs) and other Indian seed companies after intense lobbying by public interest groups. But the report finds that efforts by the MV Foundation (MVF)- headed by Magsaysay winner Dr. Shanta Shinha- to persuade these companies to eradicate child labour have been unsuccessful as companies have failed to take concrete measures. The report finds that lack of political will, coupled with reluctance on the part of MNCs to share names of seed organisers is impeding compliance monitoring. MVF contends that these MNCs have reneged on their promise to disclose the names of farmers employing child labour.

According to the report an estimated 12,375 children are working in horrendous conditions on cottonseed farms in Andhra Pradesh for MNCs, Advanta (Dutch-British), Proagro (a division of Bayer, Germany) and US companies Emergent Genetics and Monsanto. Indian seed companies also employ an additional 70,000 children who are often bonded to the employers by loans. These children work long hours under extremely hazardous conditions and a number of children have died or become seriously ill due to exposure to pesticides.

The report on Andhra Pradesh is a follow up of an earlier report published last May which revealed that in the beginning of 2002 an estimated 53,000 children were working in farms producing for MNCs and almost 200,000 for Indian companies. But recent survey shows that the percentage of children that are part of the labour force has since dropped from 90 percent in 2002 to about 60 percent the following year. This decline was, however, due to severe drought in the state that led to less acreage being under cottonseed cultivation.

The last report by ICN galvanised international and Indian NGOs to mobilise against the use of child labour from cottonseed farms in Andhra Pradesh. The effort spearheaded by MVF resulted in getting concessions from the multinationals and Indian companies who agreed to co-operate with MVF and other stakeholders to eliminate child labour from the cottonseed industry. The Association of Seed Industry (ASI), the trade group, also passed a resolution last year “to proactively discourage directly and through its members the practice of child labour in hybrid cotton seed production and further take effective steps along with other stakeholders towards eradication of this evil from the hybrid cottonseed industry.”

However, a year on the ICN report finds that both government as well as the industry has not kept its promise. A draft legislation, proposed by the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) which was in power last year, is still languishing in the State Legislative Assembly and the Congress government has not taken a position on the issue.

Even efforts by NGOs have not borne favourable results despite promises by companies to co-operate. At a meeting held earlier this year, the ASI shared its action plan for the 2004-05 crop season. The activities planned included formation of a mandal level monitoring committees, publicity through print and electronic media, and village incentive schemes aimed at rewarding villages which do not employ children in cottonseed farms. Specifically, the first time violation of the farmer will result in issuing a show cause notice by the company and a certain period to rectify the situation. If the farmer continues to violate the no child labour norm, the company will cut some percentage of money from its payments to the farmer and a third time violation will result in the company completely rejecting to buy seeds from the farmer. But there is no clearly specified time gap between each inspection. The report says that despite ASI agreeing to form local committees for monitoring compliance, “the process of formation of these committees has yet to be completed.”

The ASI had also agreed to share information with MVF regarding production sites and provide lists of farmers who produce cottonseed for ASI members, but went back on its promise citing “business reasons.” Sharing the data would have helped NGOs to bring any violation by the farmers to the notice of ASI and the local Child Rights Protection Committees.

Earlier coverage

 •  No children on the farm
 •  Childhood, cropped
The report points out that though there is a significant decline in the number of children employed in the cottonseed industry in Andhra Pradesh, the trend is far from reassuring. One of the reasons could be attributed to severe drought in the area that has led to a decline in the area under commercial cultivation. Also, due to growing media attention and interventions against child labour in the state, some seed companies are slowly relocating the production base to other states like Gujarat and Karnataka where child labour has not yet received much attention.

The seed companies themselves have been rather quiet on the ICN report. While the ASI provided comments on the draft report, they did not send a final rejoinder. Unilever maintained that they had “internally taken all kind of measures in order to ensure that child labour is not allowed in any product that is sourced by us''. Advanta's comment was that it had already replied to the accusations last year May and did not want to comment again. The also maintain that it was largely a problem of children working on their parents farms, a contention refuted by ICN.

The report generated moderate interest in the western press and questions were asked in the Dutch parliament. A radio programme on it was cancelled because the companies refused to react.

ICN and MVF plan to bring up this issue at the upcoming international child labour conference in Hyderabad (2-5 November) raising it with both the International Union for Food Workers (IUF) - and their Indian affiliates. They are also considering lodging a complaint with National Contact Point of the OECD Guidelines for companies.