July 13, 2003

Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta exploiting child labour, says report

Full report:

A new report by Dr Davuluri Venkateswarlu (Glocal Research and Consultancy Services) reveals that multinational companies are perpetuating the terrible problem of child labour on cotton seed farms in India. It is estimated that nearly 450.000 children, in the age group of 6 to 14 years, are employed in cottonseed fields in India.

Currently there are about 200 seed companies involved in production and marketing of hybrid cottonseeds in India, including multinational companies (MNCs) like Unilever, Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Advanta and Emergent Genetics. MNCs are operating their seed business activities through their own subsidiary companies in India or joint ventures and collaborations with local Indian companies.

Local seed farmers, who cultivate hybrid cottonseeds for the big seed companies, secure the labour of girls by offering loans to their parents in advance of cultivation, compelling the girls to work at the terms set by the employer for the entire season, and, in practice, for several years. These girls work long days, are paid very little, are deprived of an education and are exposed for long periods to dangerous agricultural chemicals.

MNCs like Monsanto, Advanta and Bayer claim that they are committed to socially responsible business practices. Unilever, Syngenta and Bayer are also member companies of the global compact (please also see the report: “Bayer and the Global Compact”), a joint initiative of the United Nations and private business companies started in 2000, aimed at improving the human rights, social standards and environmental protection. But the activities of these MNCs in the area of cottonseed business in India are certainly not 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 seed farmers who actually employ children for producing seed for these companies.

Seed farmers have stated two main reasons for their preference for child labour: children's wages are much lower than adult wages and they are generally easier to control. Given costs of cultivation and prices they get for their produce seed farmers can not afford to hire adult labour by paying better wages and still earn a reasonable profit. Accordingly a seed farmer who is producing seed for Unilever says, “if we have to employ adult labour we will have to pay double the wages than what we are paying now to children. With prices we get from companies we cannot afford to employ adult labour. Though our costs are increasing every year companies are not coming forward to increase their procurement prices.”

What distinguishes child labour in cottonseed production from other industries which employ child labour is that it involves relatively large numbers and female child labour constitutes majority of the total labour force. The figure of children working in the cottonseed business surpasses the total number of children employed in industries such as carpet, glass bangles, diamond polishing gem polishing and limestone put together in India.

The report was commissioned by the India Committee of Netherlands