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Child workers in the cotton fields of India

There are an estimated 215 million child workers worldwide and nearly two-thirds of those (aged 5-17 years) work in agriculture, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The majority of these are unpaid family members. However, around a third of child labourers in agriculture are employed by private individuals in sectors which traditionally rely on cheap labour, such as the cotton industry. In India, cotton growers make use of vulnerable groups such as migrants or indigenous communities to pick and gin the cotton. Workers are often women and girls, who spend long hours to produce the cotton needed by the global clothes market.

For a recent report on child cotton labourers in India, the BBC’s Humphrey Hawksley travelled to a northern area of Gujarat. Here he found girls, some as young as 10 or 11, working in a factory processing raw cotton from the region’s fields. There was no minimum wage and little attention paid to safety. One labour activist who acted as a guide on the trip said “the workers’ lives are terrible”.

It was also easy to find young children openly working in the cotton fields. One girl said she was 10 years old, though she wasn’t certain about her age. She had been brought to work in the cotton fields from Rajastan and wasn’t sure where her parents were. An adult explained that the child had been supplied through a labour agent by her parents, who would receive all the money she earned.

According to one Indian campaigning organisation, around a third of workers in the cotton-producing industry are children. The number of child cotton workers across the country as a whole could be as much as half a million. In the cotton ginning factories, the children are exposed to dust which can cause lung disease from a young age, though legally, all workers should wear masks. In the fields, the children have long hours of stooping and repetitive movement, often in extreme temperatures. Youngsters are also exposed to skin irritants contained in the crops. Research now shows that a child’s neurological development can be affected from exposure to pesticides, which can damage the nervous system.

The ILO has already drawn attention to the frequent use of child labour in the cotton industry. In 2009, its Global report highlighted the situation of children in Uzbekistan, who are taken out of school to collect the cotton harvests. After media attention, several major clothes retailers and buyers stopped sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan. However, as the BBC’s report on the situation in India makes clear, retailers have to make an effort to work back through the supply chain to find out where the raw materials are coming from. Clothing manufacturers in India now use modern factories with good facilities and working practices and they track their supply chain back to the spinning mills. But few are going even further back to examine the ginning factories and cotton fields. And that’s where the use of child labour continues to exist.

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