Practitioners' perspectives of child migrant labour and child exploitation within cotton seed fields: cases from Gujarat, India.

Author:Assan, Joseph K.

    Statistical estimates on incidences of child labour often vary. However, it is thought that globally, there are 352 million economically active children between the ages of 5 and 17 years . Of this, it also thought that at least 211 million are under the age of 14, and a further 8.4 million are working in the worst form of child labour as defined by Article 3 of the International Labour Organisation Convention (ILO 182, 2002). Within academic discourse, there are also growing engagements with children welfare from the perspectives of childhood theories, children's geographies and 'child rights'(Holloway & Valentine, 2000; Venkatesworth et al. 2005; Goldhagen & Landown, 2008). Despite increasing condemnation of child labour, there is still scepticism about its total eradication in the immediate future (Sharp, 1996; Dessy, 2001).

    The agriculture industry is one of the worst offenders for child labour, employing some 150 million children (Human Rights Watch, 2008). In many countries across the globe, children are being enlisted to work for long hours, carrying out hard tasks in often very distressing conditions. What is also evident is that the perversity of the continued use of child labour appears to coincide with times of great economic progress. As Greider aptly notes 'the great paradox of this economic revolution is that new technologies enable people and nations to take sudden leaps into modernity, while at the same time they promote the renewal of once forbidden barbarianisms.' Greider goes on to lament that amid the newness of things, exploitation of the weak by the strong also flourishes' (Greider, 1997 cited in Bourdillon, 2006).

    The cotton industry in India is dominated by western multinational corporations (MNCs) and as demand for cotton has doubled since the 1980s so have profits, with sales reaching $2.6 billion in 2008 (Cotton Corporation India, 2008). However, seed prices are kept stagnant and this encourages demand for cheap labour (New Internationalist, 2007). International legislation surrounding child labour includes the international ILO Convention No. 138 on Minimum Age and No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour. India has not ratified these Conventions, but has its own Child Labour Act 1986. However it is legal for a child to work in agriculture, making the regulation and protection of cotton workers particularly challenging.

    This article explores the dynamics of child labour within the context of migrant child labour and the implications for child right legislations and exploitative labour/employment of children within the cotton seed farms of Gujarat, India. The study on which this article is based draws on field data generated through interviews and examination of field reports by NGOs in Gujarat. This region produces one of the highest yields of hybrid cotton in India (Cotton Corporation India, 2008). Farmers recruit children from the neighbouring state aware that the wages are too low for local adults. Development practitioners actively working in the Gujarat locality have established that children are engaged in various forms of bonded labour and exploitation (DRMU, 2008). The numbers involved are perceived to be growing as NGO reports suggest that about 32.7% of the workforce was found to be less than 14 years old with another 42.3% classified between 15-18 years old. Children, especially girls, are becoming more favoured in agriculture because they are more passive, will work harder and complain less, receive lower wages than boys and are frequently abused (DRMU, 2008). Besides exploring these issues, the overall aim of this article is to contribute to the current discourse on child labour-right within the context of seasonal labour migration by assessing the patterns and dynamics of child migration and exploited labour within the cotton seed fields in Gujarat, India.


    The term 'childhood' refers to the early stages of an individual's life. However, definitions have considerable geographical, gendered and cultural implications (Holloway & valentine, 2000). it is often difficult to draw a line between childhood and adulthood. Some theorists consider childhood as merely a continuous part of adulthood (see Bourdillon, 2006). They argue that different cultural and material conditions will result in different childhoods. Although protection and support is accepted, work is seen as normal as children develop. Stegemen (2004) takes a predominant modernization approach claiming that children in the developed world create a model of childhood for all countries (Stegemen 2004). The UN defines a child as anyone under the age of 18 years (UNICEF, 2008). However, a child under the age of 5 is not considered old enough to work.


    'Work' is loosely defined as any 'economic' activity undertaken outside the household; whether paid or unpaid, legal or illegal, rural or urban (ILO, 2006). Although this is criticised for blurring what is 'household' work compared to other types of activities (Weiner et al, 2006: 34). The international Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (iPEC) only considers children between 5-17 years old within their child labour estimates (IPEC, 2002).

    Defining 'Child Labour' is problematic as there is more than one definition influenced by perception of childhood, social attitudes and national law. However, definitions which vary most revolve around the child's mental, physical or moral development. (Desai & Potter, 2002 p.216) IPEC also considers dignity and 'potential'--including schooling and 'playtime' (IPEC, 2008). At its most broad, 'child labour' is any 'economic' activity that takes place for at least 11 hours per week (Betcherman, et al, 2004). This definition is often used in statistical data but is generally vague. Bourdillon (2006) argues that using categorisation by age to judge appropriate work (as per the ILO Convention No.138) simplifies the matter and does serve the interests of the child.

    When researching the discourse surrounding ' child labour' there is a divide between those who take a totally negative stance against it and those who believe that child employment can be beneficial. Bourdillon (2006) makes an important point regarding Weston (2005), who defines 'child labour' as work done that is 'harmful to the child or otherwise contrary to their best interests.' The problem is that harm is relative. Bass (2004) for instance, argues that 'not all child labour is bad' (Bass, 2004 cited in Bourdillon, 2006), a view that many share. Edmonds and Pavcnik (2005) point out that there is often a misconception that all work is harmful to a child; the outcome of this negative connotation is that any positives are ignored. Ennew et al (2005) also note that the term 'child labour' is manipulated to the social, political and ideological convenience of a variety of organisations. No one single definition currently covers all children's work, thus researchers must consider each child individually.


    There is considerable discourse on the distinction between 'child labour' and 'child work'. At its most basic definition, 'child labour' is waged and 'child work' is the unwaged activities that children do in the course of their everyday lives (Sharpe, 2006). Often those endorse this distinction argue that the latter form of work is a positive part of the socialisation process. The World Bank considers work within the protection of a family beneficial to a child's development, and theorists such as Liebel (2004) favour the positive element of ' light work with limited working hours.' Wiener et al. (2006) dismiss this argument as weak, arguing that 'light' work includes carrying firewood and water, animal husbandry and helping in the field. individually, the tasks may not be time consuming but it is rare that a child will only partake in one activity.

    The international NGO, Action Aid holds the view that 'child work' becomes 'child labour' when it shifts from ' developmental' to 'economic' (see Desai and Potter, 2002). The ILO defines 'child work' as all paid and unpaid, part or full time activity done in the household or for the market (IPEC, 2008). However, Weiner et al. (2006) argue that these organisations are not concerned with work contributing to households. They also chastise activists who glorify children as carers and heads of households, as these activities affect the child's development and schooling. Sharpe (2006) in his article on ' child labour' versus 'child work' discusses girls who were working legally in Morocco as garment workers but were made to stop when an international policy caused public protest to the employment. The girls' main complaint was that nobody had asked them what they wanted. Who knows best when it comes to a child's welfare? Children are not always the passive exploited individuals that they are portrayed to be.


    In the last decade, several international instruments seeking to protect the welfare and rights of children have been adopted. These include the ILO Convention (No. 138) on Minimum Wage 1973 and the ILO Convention (No. 182) on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, 1999. The ILO Minimum Age Convention states that national law must determine minimum age, but work that could jeopardise health should not be done by persons less than 18 years, and 'light work' should not be done by children less than 12 years in a developing country. India is yet to ratify the ILO Conventions, but it has enacted its own Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986. This Act regulates working conditions and prohibits the employment of children below the age of 14 in factories, mines and in other forms of hazardous employment.

    There have been many critics of these Conventions, particularly regarding minimum age as an international standard. Despite criticism there is yet...

To continue reading