Child Labourers in Indian Cotton Industry Get Raw Deal

19/01/2012 - There may be as many as half a million child labourers in India's cotton industry, some of whom receive no pay whatsoever.

Millions of children in India are engaged in child labour, despite the fact that the constitution and international law offer protection against the hazardous practice.

The country’s 1950 constitution states, “no child below the age of 14 years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or engaged in any other hazardous employment.”

Yet, some of the girls who work in the country’s cotton industry are no more than 10 or 11 years old. In the state of Gujarat, some of these youngsters sacrifice their education to feed ginning machines with cotton picked from fields close by, the BBC reports.

Ginning is a process that separates the cotton lint (fibres) from the seeds—a key process in bringing cotton from the farm to the fashion boutiques. The whole industry generates trillions of dollars in revenue every year.

As many as half a million children may work in India’s cotton industry, making one third of the sector’s cotton seeders, pickers, ginners and other workers children.

“They are not paid the minimum wage. There are no safety precautions. There are many children,” activist Jignesh Mevani told the BBC.

One of the children captured on film by the news agency was Kali Gamar, likely ten years old, who works in a ginning factory with her older sister and has no idea where to find her parents.

Other children aren’t paid the wages they earn, turning this aspect of child labour into slavery. Two of these girls were trafficked into the industry by their parents.

“They came some months back,” one adult worker confirmed. “They don't get paid. The money must go straight to their parents.”

India is home to 400 million children, so cheap labour is something the country has in large supply. Employers know that children are disempowered, particularly when they have no parents to protect them. As such, they do not always pay children for their work, creating a highly exploitative environment for one of society’s most vulnerable populations.

The worst forms of child labour include slavery, prostitution, pornography, human and drug trafficking and work that jeopardizes the health, safety, physical, mental or moral wellbeing of a child (“hazardous work”).

Ginning is certainly hazardous work. The cotton dust and endotoxin released during the process can lead to the early development of lung disease. The two can inflame the body’s airways and lead to breathing problems, chronic coughing and chronic bronchitis.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the world is home to 215 million child labourers. The good news is that this represents a decline of about 7 million since 2004. Experts worry that the global financial crisis of 2008 has hindered progress toward further eliminating the worst forms of child labour by 2016.