Both Hindustan Lever Ltd., the Indian subsidiary of British-Dutch multinational company Unilever, as well as the American multinational Monsanto are making use of hazardous forms of child labour in cotton seed production in India on a large scale, the India Committee of the Netherlands reports. An estimated 25,000 children, mostly girls, work an average of ten to thirteen hours a day for Hindustan Lever, while around 17,000 children work for Monsanto and its Indian subsidiary Mahyco. These children get no education, earn less than Rs.20 a day and are exposed to poisonous pesticides like Endosulphan during their work. More than 11,000 children work under similar conditions for the multinationals Syngenta (Swiss), Advanta (Dutch-British) and Proagro (owned by Bayer of Germany).

Cotton Seeds: Largest Employment of Children

In Andhra Pradesh alone, 247,800 children work in cottonseed production and around 450,000 in all of India, most of them for Indian-owned companies. No other industry in India employs so many children. The cottonseed companies do not employ the children themselves, but they work through agents called seed organisers. The companies unilaterally fix a price for the farmers that makes it almost impossible for them to employ adults. A child earns 30% less than a woman and 55% less than a man.

Cottonseed production is very labour-intensive. The sector is 'unique' in the sense that nine out of ten employees are children between 6 and 14 years of age. Generally they are, through advances paid to their parents, bonded to the same employer. According to Dr. Venkateswarlu's research, almost 30% of the children are being recruited by intermediaries to work as 'migrants' away from home. These children work 12 to 13 hours a day and sleep in the farmer's cowshed or in a 'child camp' where ten to thirty children live.

Narasamma, for example, is 12 years old and she worked in the cotton seed fields for the last three years. She sleeps in a cattle shed with other migrant children and works more than 13 hours a day with two breaks. She regularly gets ill after being sprayed with pesticides. She is paid Rs. 800 a month.

Unilever & Hindustan Lever

Unilever informed the Dutch press that it would like to contribute to a solution of the child labour problem in cottonseed production in India, though in its press release of May 5th 2003, it rejects the accusation of using child labour. Unilever contends in its press release that NGO's have not sought contact with Hindustan Lever is refuted by the ICN. In February 2002 representatives of the ICN, the Netherlands Confederation of Trade Unions (FNV), Novib and Amnesty International Netherlands and the NGO MV Foundation from Andhra Pradesh discussed the issue with Unilever. Unilever promised a follow-up discussion between Hindustan Lever and the MV foundation.

In March 2002 Hindustan Lever (HLL) sold its seeds division to its subsidiary Paras Extra Seed Growth Seed (PEGS) and formed a joint venture with Emergent Genetics, a US based biotechnology company for the seeds business. HLL now holds a 26% share in PEGS while the remainder was sold to Emergent Genetics. An important reason was that Monsanto has sub-licensed its patent rights over BT terminator gene, technology also to Emergent Genetics. Access to Monsanto's BT Bolgard gene seems to be crucial to survive and grow in cotton seeds business.

European Campaign: 'Stop Child Labour - School is the Best Place to Work'

This month the campaign 'Stop Child Labour - School is the Best Place to Work' begins in Germany, The Netherlands and Ireland. This is a three-year campaign of Concern from Ireland, German Agro-Action from Germany and the Dutch Teachers Union, Hivos, India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) and the Netherlands Confederation of Trade Unions. The campaign draws inspiration from and closely co-operates with the MV Foundation from Andhra Pradesh (A.P), India, which has brought about 150,000 children from work to full-time education. The MV Foundation is also closely involved in combating child labour in the cotton seed industry. It has already withdrawn hundreds of children from the cotton seeds industry and put them in full-time schools. The state government of A.P. has adopted a similar policy that no child should work and every child should go to a full-time school.

The demands of the campaign towards the European Union and its member states are:

  • Create a coherent policy on the elimination of child labour linked to the provision of full-time, formal education for all children up to 14 years of age.

  • Ensure that the European members work together to allocate at least 8% of Overseas Development Aid to formal primary education, including strategies to integrate all out-of-school children into the education system.

  • Make provisions in development aid to ensure that girls and young children from vulnerable groups (including those living in absolute poverty) are integrated into the formal school system.

The full report, Child Labour and Trans-National Seed Companies in Hybrid Cotton Seed Production in Andhra Pradesh by Dr. Davuluri Venkateswarlu can be found at