Unilever is accused of abetting child labour

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 May, 2003, 12:00am

The company seeks to clarify claims its Indian suppliers hire girls as young as six

Multinational firm Unilever has pursued policies that encourage child labour, according to a report published by campaigners for underage workers in India's huge cotton seed industry.

The Anglo-Dutch giant said it was opposed to child labour and would be happy to meet the voluntary group responsible for the report, the India Committee of the Netherlands, to discuss its findings.

Unilever is not accused of employing children directly. The culprits, according to the committee, are lower down the food chain - farmers in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh where large areas are devoted to cotton production and where much of the group's research was carried out.

These farmers, the report says, employ children as young as six to work in the cotton seed industry. The charge against Unilever is that it buys hybrid cotton seeds from these farmers who not only employ children but also pay them only around 30 rupees (about HK$5) for a 12-hour day.

The cotton-growing districts are full of landless labourers who are too poor to send their children to school. With no option but to put their children to work, they accept whatever wages and conditions are offered.

Cotton is a major commercial crop. India accounts for 12 per cent of the world's cotton production.

The hybrid cotton industry is extremely labour-intensive: each cotton flower bud has to be delicately pollinated by hand, hence the preference for small hands.

Moreover, the report says that most of the children are girls, owing to the farmers' belief that cross-pollination will only work if it is carried out by girls who have not yet reached puberty.

'These girls work long days, are paid very little, are deprived of an education and are exposed for long periods to dangerous agricultural chemicals,' the report says.

It adds that farmers are effectively turning the children into 'bonded' labourers by ensnaring their parents in loans that take years to repay.

Narasamma, 12, is quoted as saying that she sleeps in a cattle shed and works more than 13 hours a day, with just two breaks.

As well as offering biscuits and chocolates to make the children work harder, farmers also put on videos occasionally so that children keep working while watching.

Unilever buys the seeds through its Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Lever, from a company called Paras Extra Growth Seed. This company buys the cotton seeds from middlemen, who in turn buy the seeds from farmers.

The committee says that while Unilever does not employ the children, the link is that the amount that farmers receive for the seeds has a direct impact on wage levels. The other multinationals mentioned are the Swiss Syngenta, US-based Monsanto, Bayer of Germany and the Dutch Advanta.

The reason Unilever features prominently in the report is that of the 22 seed farms included in the survey, 12 were producing seeds for Unilever.