"New Indian Child Labour Bill allows many children to work"

India has a new law against child labour. Or more precisely: the old Child Labour Act of 1986 was recently amended. On July 19, 2016, the Indian Upper House (Rajya Sabha) approved the amendments.

Has the law been improved after so many years of struggle against child labour and with partial success in practice? On some points it is, but Indian child rights activists and many others are very disappointed in the significant loopholes in the law which even might increase child labour – especially of children below 14 years of age.

Basically, the new law prohibits all employment of children under 14 years. The law thus fits (finally) in with the Education Act of 2009, giving the right to free education to all children up to this age and obliging parents to send them to school.

Until recently, children from 14 to 18 years were allowed to do any kind of work. Now for this group of children it is prohibited to work in mines, to work with inflammable substances or explosives and – the much broader category – to do ‘hazardous work’. For the definition of hazardous work the amendment Bill refers to an annex of the Factories Act of 1948 in which 28 sectors are mentioned – such as the production of coal, cement, metal, leather, chemicals, glass and dyes - where adolescents are not allowed to work.

Also the penalties for employers have been increased significantly when child labour is encountered. There is an imprisonment of at least six months to two years (previously three months to one year) and/or a fine of between 20,000 and 50,000 rupees (previously 10,000 to 20,000 rupees). For a second offense an imprisonment of 1 to 3 years can be imposed.

Extreme exploitation

That all sounds firm and strict. What then is wrong with the law? Possibly the biggest problem is an exception in the law that says that children under 14 may help their family after school with work or may work in a ‘family enterprises’. Children may also perform after school as ‘artist’ in the 'audio-visual entertainment industry’, including advertising, movies and TV series. However, the child is not allowed to do hazardous work in one of the above mentioned 28 sectors.

Also that might sound reasonable at first sight. Is it not desirable that all children at home learn to help with some daily chores after school (although working in the 'family business' sounds less child friendly…..)? Also there is, according to the Minister of Labour, Bandaru Dattatreya, no employer-employee relationship while the exception of family work would be necessary because of the ‘socio-economic backwardness in society’.

The law stipulates that family means father and mother, but also of brother and sister, and brothers and sisters of the father and mother are counted.

However, a major problem in India is that a lot of work is being outsourced by companies and subcontractors to families in the extended sense of the word. Even now children under 14 often work full days involved in hacking cobbles stones, stitching shoes and footballs, rolling beedi's (cigarettes) and incense sticks, embroidery work on clothing, crafts, packing, sticking labels and many other activities. The reason is that parents usually make so little money with the very low pay for piecework that children are easily involve to increase home production. The subcontractors, hired by companies, also count on that. It is a form of extreme exploitation that keeps the family poor but also eager to work to earn a meagre income. Most children working at home are in agriculture and other rural jobs. Their parents, often small farmers or agricultural workers, get so little paid for their products or labour that they, in addition to their own children, sometime also hire other people’s children.

A very painful example is the production of cotton and vegetable seed for western and Indian multinationals for which do hundreds of thousands of children and underpaid women work. The fear of many commentators is that this practice will increase significantly by the new law. The Hindu Business Online writes: ''The harsh reality is that by exempting 'family enterprises' the Centre may well end up legitimising exploitation of the poor and vulnerable." There is, according to this business newspaper, “a growing trend of outsourcing, contractors who farm out work to families at exploitation rates”.

Health and school performance at stake

But we’re talking about work after school, so why children might not help out to increase the family income? Shantha Sinha, former head of the Indian National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights and renowned children's activist of the MV Foundation, says in an article: "It is the kind of work that starts before and after school hours until late in the night at the cost of children’s health until they can no longer concentrate in the classroom or participate in school and are branded as slow learners. Unable to straddle both school and work, these children are forced to give up the former." Moreover, the MV Foundation itself showed profusely proven that it is possible through dedicated local mobilization and organization to get all children in certain areas to school and keep them there. Through this so-called Child Labour Free Zone approach they have reached more than 1 million children.

About ‘family work’ in the new law Sinha says: "The Bill does not seek to justify routine family work, but the work that millions of children render in home-based units," citing the many forms of outsourced work to which children contribute. How poignant the relation between missing out on education and various forms of child labour becomes also clear from research: on an average school day only 71% of the enrolled children is actually in school. According to the same study, the consequences are disastrous for even the basic literacy and numeracy knowledge of many children.

Child labour before and after school also continues and reinforces extreme forms of exploitation of families under the pretext of: there is plenty of cheap children available, so why pay more to adults.

Not just the child rights activists but also the Indian parliamentary commission that reviewed the law is very critical on ‘family work' after school: “The Committee is not able to understand as to how the Ministry proposes to keep a check on children working in their homes. The Ministry is itself provides loopholes by inserting this provision since it would be very difficult to make out whether children are merely helping their parents or are working to supplement the family income.”

 ‘Pleased with the new law’: children are cheaper

UNICEF also is critical of the law. It notes that the number of child labourers is highest among Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasi), that particularly in rural areas many children are working but that child labour in cities is increasing due to ‘children migrating or being trafficked to work in hazardous small industries or construction sites’. UNICEF fears that especially these vulnerable children ‘’may end up with irregular school attendance, lower levels of learning and could be forced to drop out of school’. Therefore UNICEF strongly recommends the removal of ‘children helping in family enterprises’, the development of an ‘exhaustive list of hazardous occupations’ and to come up with a ‘robust monitoring system’.

Some businessmen are however really pleased with the new law, according to an article by BBC News. “It’s really good news,” said Rajinder, a factory owner. “Earlier I could only hire someone aged above 18. Now I can employ more people… I pay my workers 300 rupees (€ 4.50) a day. But I pay an underage employee only 100 rupees (€ 1.50). It is a big saving.” Rajinder is not very concerned that this work that such work can only take place within the family: “How long does it take to acquire a family?” he asks. “It’s not a big problem.” “That's exactly,” says journalist Sanjoy Majumder of BBC News, “what child rights activists and critics of the new law fear: that it will be exploited and used to drive more children out of school and into work.”

 Caste hierarchy perpetuated

And what about the adolescents from 14 to 18 years? Are they now well protected legally? The reality is very disappointing. Although under the new law teenager are not allowed to work in mines and with inflammable substances and explosives or carry out certain forms of ‘hazardous work’, the list of 28 sectors is very limited and comprises less than half of the professions and jobs in the old list that young children were not allowed to perform. What is particularly lacking in the list is the entire agricultural sector, including the use of pesticides, but also the labour in e.g. garment factories, spinning mills and weaving and dyeing units.

Shantha Sinha describes the broader social impact of the amended Child Labour Act in her article ‘The new law banning child labor is no ban at all':

“Such work [after school] incorporates children into the family occupation and thus somehow maintains the status quo and perpetuates caste hierarchy. Taken to its logical conclusion, it implies that it is best for the children to continue in their family profession – a potter’s child ends up as a potter, a weaver’s child a weaver and an agricultural labourer’s child a farm worker. And,” says Sinha, “the Bill denies them the time and space to develop and grow as citizens with similar choices and opportunities that children from affluent families enjoy.” And thus “only contribute towards fostering existing inequalities and discriminatory practices in society.”

“Instead,” she finds that "the amendment to the Act should have enabled children to engage in activities, before and after school hours, that foster their active participation in school as a student and enhances their overall self-esteem and dignity.”

Gerard Oonk

Director India Committee of the Netherlands

and senior advocacy officer Stop Chil Labour


Companies involved in child labour in Indian vegetable seed production

Almost 156,000 Indian children are producing vegetable seeds (tomato, hot pepper, okra), of which 50,000 are below 14 years of age. The large majority of them are either Dalits, low caste or Adivasi (tribals). All of them are exposed to harsh working conditions, including poisonous pesticides and long working days. They mostly drop out of school between 11 and 13 years of age. The number of adolescent children (14 to 18) increased with more than 37,000.

Multinationals like Limagrain (French), Sakata (Japanese), Advanta (Indian) and East-West Seed (Dutch) had between 10 and 16% children below 14 years working at farmers producing seeds for them. Indian companies show similar figures. All companies have around 30% adolescents working on supplier farms.

These are key findings from the new study Soiled Seeds - Child Labour and Underpayment of Women in Vegetable Seed Production in India by Dr. Davuluri Venkateswarlu, long-term expert on the issue. He studied the situation in the states of Maharashtra and Karnataka, which account for 80% of the vegetable seed production.

Another key finding from the report is that women are mostly not paid the official minimum wage for their work. They are generally assigned tasks – like cross-pollination, weeding and harvesting – that pay less than activities performed by men including spraying pesticides and applying fertilizer. Depending on the specific region women earn between 11 and 47% less than the official minimum wage. Multinationals are not performing better on wages at their suppliers than Indian companies. Activities by e.g. Nunhems/Bayer and Syngenta raising awareness on the issue and promoting record keeping with farmers have not led to payment of at least minimum wages.

The vicious cycle of prices, underpayment of women and child labour

Soiled Seeds again confirms previous studies that low procurement paid by companies to farmers have a strong impact on both child labour and the underpayment of women. Wages are higher in locations where procurement prices are higher. A sample of farmers shows again that with present prices farmers do not make any profit if they would pay minimum wages to all labourers. This also implies that farmers have a strong incentive to hire (cheaper) children instead of adults. Higher procurement prices are therefore a pre-condition to pay at least minimum wages and fully eradicate child labour from seed farms. Of course also other interventions are required to solve both issues.

>> Read more and download the Report Soiled Seeds - Child Labour in Vegetable Seed Production (Dr. Davuluri Venkateswarlu, Nov 2015)


Almost half a million Indian children produce cottonseed

Almost half a million Indian children are working to produce the cottonseed that is the basis for our garments and all the other textile products that we use. Around 200,000 of them are below 14 years of age. This is one of the shocking results of the new study Cotton’s Forgotten Children by India’s long-term expert on the issue, Dr. Davuluri Venkateswarlu.

It is equally shocking that the number of children working in the cotton seed fields has increased with almost 100,000 since the last all-India study on this issue in 2010. Children below 14 constitute around 25% of the workforce on the fields of the farmers that supply their seeds to both Indian and multinational companies. Another 35% of the workforce are children between 14 and 18 years of age.

Long working days – Exposed to pesticides

Children below 14 – of which two-thirds are girls - are employed in the seed fields on a long-term contract basis through loans extended to their parents by local seed producers, who have agreements with the large national and multinational seed companies. Children are made to work 8 to 12 hours a day and are exposed to poisonous pesticides used in high quantities in cottonseed cultivation. Most of the children working in cottonseed farms belong to poor Dalit (‘outcaste’), Adivasi (tribal) or Backward Castes families. Around 70% of the children are hired or even trafficked from other states while 30% is ‘family labour’. Most are school-dropouts.

>> Read more and download the report 'Cotton’s Forgotten Children'



Trafficking of children to cottonseed fields of Gujarat

Every year thousands of tribal children from South Rajasthan and North Gujarat are trafficked to cottonseed plots in North Gujarat for work in the cotton seed fields, in particular to do cross-pollination by hand. This work is done in the rainy season, from August to September. Since many years the trafficking of children for cottonseed cultivation is a serious human rights issue. The Dakshini Rajasthan Mazdoor Union aims to combat trafficking through the documentation of trafficking incidences, stopping trafficking of children where possible as well as advocacy with the media, the state government and other institutions. The Union also helped farmers to get paid in time – and not e.g. only after a year - for the seeds they produce for seed companies.

>> Read the whole story on the website of the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN)

Dutch Minister Ploumen: Eradicate child labour and low wages in Indian seed sector 'as soon as possible'

The Dutch government wants child labour and low wages in the seed production in India "to be eliminated as soon as possible". That is what Dutch Minister Ploumen of Trade and Development Co-operation answered in response to parliamentary questions from Members of Parliament ChristianUnion, Party for the Animals, Socialist Party and 50Plus. She made an agreement on that with the Dutch seed companies Bejo Seeds and Nunhems, as well as with trade association Plantum. The India Committee of the Netherlands and the Stop Child Labour campaign welcome this agreement. Minister Ploumen will visit India beginning of September. CSR will be an important part of her mission.

Measures against child labour and low wages of women

Minister Ploumen writes in her reaction that the report A Tale of Two Companies of the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) has led Bejo Finance BV – that has a minority share in the Indian company Bejo Sheetal - to take action against child labour now. These measures include "informing producers, monitoring in cooperation with NGOs and local authorities, financial incentives for producers who adhere to the agreements and supporting/funding initiatives to educate children who come from a working situation". These measures - says Ploumen - are inspired by the results of Nunhems. Bejo Zaden did tell the Dutch newspaper Trouw earlier that all orders for the Dutch market will be suspended "till the Indian Bejo Sheetal has its business affairs in order".

Minister Ploumen says that Nunhems and Bejo informed her that the farmers who work for their partner companies will have to pay the minimum wage to their employees. Nunhems is doing a pilot project on this. A Tale of Two Companies did report that women and girls - over 80% of the employees - often earn less than the minimum wage of €2 per day.

Public reporting

Trade association Plantum has promised to Minister Ploumen to request its members to evaluate their policy for the eradication of child labour and report the results to Plantum. On that basis the trade association will then compile and will then compile an aggregated public report on the matter. Furthermore Plantum did promise that her working group on child labour will be broadened to labour conditions, thereby "putting minimum wage as an issue on the agenda too".

End of 2014 the Ministry of Ploumen will have a follow-up meeting with Bejo Seeds, Nunhems and Plantum on the results of the actions promised by them.

Trade mission to India

The Members of Parliament also wanted to know if the Minister had the intention to raise the issue of child labour and low wages in the Indian seed sector with her Indian counterparts during her trade mission to India beginning of September, also in view of working on joint solutions. Minister Ploumen responded that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) would be an important part of her mission and that this would relate to the two thematic areas of this mission: urbanization and food security. However, she did not directly respond to the question if child labour and wages issues in the seed sector will be raised in India.

ICN: Living wages needed

Gerard Oonk, director of the India Committee of the Netherlands: "It’s very good that Minister Ploumen comes to agreements with seed companies and their trade association on their implementation of labour rights. That should also include a 'living wage' and not just a minimum wage. Such agreements – as far as we are concerned in written form - are also very welcome with other trade associations whose members are active in countries where there is a high risk that companies violate human rights".

>> Download the complete answers to the parliamentary questions (pdf)

>> Download the report 'A Tale of Two Companies' (pdf)

Two Dutch vegetable seed companies in India compared

The Indian company Bejo Sheetal, joint venture partner of Bejo Seeds from The Netherlands, tolerates widespread child labour at the farmers who supply seeds to them. The farmers providing seeds to Nunhems India - part of Nunhems Netherlands - work almost without using child labourers younger than 14. This is the main conclusion from the report A Tale of Two Companies – The difference between action and inaction in combating child labour, today published by the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) and 'Stop Child Labour - School is the best place to work'.

Bejo Seeds and Nunhems: with and (almost) without child labour

The Dutch vegetable seed company Bejo Seeds is as a joint venture partner of Bejo Sheetal jointly responsible for the extensive child labour on the fields in India. A sample taken from 30 farmers who supply to Bejo Sheetal shows that 18% of the workers who grow pepper seeds are children under 14. In the cultivation of tomato seeds this is 12%. The large-scale child labour was also evident from the report "Growing up in the danger fields” published by the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), in 2010. The current situation has hardly improved.

Nunhems has begun to eliminate child labour years ago, prompted by earlier reports of the ICN on child labour in the Indian seed production. A clearly promoted policy of 'zero tolerance' for child labour, a control system with both incentives and penalties, and contributions to the education of children, has reduced the number of young working children to almost 1% of the workers growing seeds for Nunhems.

Both companies: hazardous child labour of teenagers and underpayment women

In addition, at the farmers supplying to Nunhems India and Bejo Sheetal nearly 30% of all workers are children between 15 and 18 years. Hazardous labour for children older than 14 years will be banned in India soon. And this work is certainly hazardous. Children work long hours and are often exposed to dangerous pesticides. They also often drop out of school at an early age.

Nunhems and Bejo Sheetal also have another big problem. Women and girls - over 80% of the workers – often earn less than the official minimum wage. For labourers in Karnataka this wage is more than € 2.00, but women usually earn no more than between € 1.36 to € 1.75. For men’s tasks such as spraying of pesticides and ploughing is paid 40-70% more than “women's tasks” like weeding and fertilization of the seed plants. Also the same task is paid differently to men and women.

Both Nunhems and Bejo have informed us that they will take action to reduce the wage gap between men and women and to raise the payment for women up to at least the minimum wage. After reading of the report Bejo Seeds has also promised to start tackling child labour in India.

Nunhems India and Bejo Sheetal are both leading companies in the Indian seed market. They are among the top 10 of vegetable seed companies and have a combined share of 20% in the market of pepper and tomato seeds. The production takes mainly place in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.

Majority of workers are Dalit women and girls

Half of the seed workers are Dalits (‘untouchables’) and Adivasi (‘tribals'), and most of the others are from the lowest castes, just above the Dalits. Especially Dalits are often treated ‘differently', according to the report. The report “Wages of Inequality” from 2012 explains: Dalits are often insulted and humiliated. Furthermore, workers who are not day-labourer but working throughout the whole year with one farmer are almost all Dalits. They are permanently 'at the disposal of the farmer’ and usually work about 12 hours a day. Their overtime is not paid. Apart from that, only a minority of the children is part of the farmers’ family. The majority (78%) of the children is 'hired'.

REPRINT report ‘No Child Labour - Better Wages’

In November 2010 the India Committee of the Netherlands and FNV Mondiaal published the report “No Child Labour - Better Wages”. The report - now being re-issued with together with the report “A Tale of Two Companies” - was based on field research in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and did conclude that the elimination of child labour led to a remarkable increase in the wages of adult farm workers. In two villages the elimination of child labour between 2005 and 2009 resulted in an increase in wage for cotton workers of over 150%. In the villages where child labour continued the wage increase was just over 50%. Since child labour was eradicated labour became relatively scarce and adults had more opportunities to negotiate their wages and working conditions. For example, they don’t have to pay interest any more for the loans  they are taking.

>> Download “A Tale of Two Companies” & “No Child Labour - Better Wages” (pdf)

>> Find more information on child labour and wages in the Indian seed production