This follows on from the scandal exposed earlier this year of around 17,000 children being used by Monsanto, and their Indian subsidiary Mahyco, in hazardous forms of child labour in cotton seed production in India.
Children were working 13 hours a day forless than 40 Eurocents (Rs. 20) but were repeatedly being exposed to poisonous pesticides during their work. They were also getting no education.
More than 11,000 children work under similar conditions for the multinationals Syngenta (Swiss), Advanta (Dutch-British) and Proagro (owned by Bayer from Germany).
Monsanto, it seems, has now been shamed into acting. Ranjana Smetacek of Monsanto India seems to have committed the company to rapid reform. "We consider this our responsibility," she has said, even though the company's president Hugh Grant is still ducking and diving on the issue.
No children on the farm
Following allegations of wide-spread child labour in their business activities, foreign and Indian agri-business firms pledge to reform themselves. An update from The India Committe of the Netherlands.
October 2003 - Seed multinationals Monsanto, Emergent Genetics, Hindustan Lever, Syngenta, Advanta and Proagro (a subsidiary of Bayer) as well as some big Indian seed companies, have agreed to co-operate with the MV Foundation in Andhra Pradesh - Magsaysay award winner Dr Shantha Sinha is the group's general secretary - to eliminate child labour from the cotton seed industry. The companies will come up with a concrete proposal shortly.
This was the outcome of a meeting between the companies and the MV Foundation (MVF) in September in Hyberabad. The outcome is a real breakthrough in view of the ongoing debate on the issue. The companies who were present are all members of the 'Association of Seed Industry (ASI). The annual assembly of ASI also passed a resolution on September 13th 'to pro-actively discourage directly and through its members the practice of child labour in hybrid cotton seed production and further take effective steps along with other stakeholders towards eradication of this evil from the hybrid cotton seed industry'.
These developments took place four to five months after the publication of a report on child labour in hybrid cotton seed production by the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN). It was revealed that almost 250,000 children under fourteen years of age, mainly girls, work on hybrid cotton farms in Andhra Pradesh for long hours under hazardous conditions.
Dr. Shantha Sinha , secretary of the MV Foundation and chairperson of the meeting, wrote to ICN: "'all companies recognised that children are being employed in the farms to which they have sub-contracted seed production. They also recognise that it is part of their corporate social responsibility to correct the situation"'. She told Global Ethics Monitor: "all of them agreed for the first time they were responsible, which was a very big gain."
Swiss seed multinational Syngenta, after having met MVF in June 2003, had agreed to contact other seed majors to set up a joint monitoring effort in collaboration with the MV Foundation. Paswan Malik, head of Syngenta Seeds India, said that the formation of the group in September 'was an admission on behalf of the companies that they had responsibility for the actions of their contractors'.
Also Ranjana Smetaceck, spokeswoman of Monsanto India, stated while referring to the joint meeting: "'We consider this our responsibility as everyone else would around the table". She added that it is a 'pretty realistic target' to eradicate child labour from the Indian hybrid cotton seed production in the coming six months. However, President Hugh Grant of Monsanto writes in a letter of September 18 2003 to the Washington-based International Labour Rights Fund that, being a minority owner of the Indian company Mahyco, they 'encourage Mahyco to discourage inappropriate child labour practices'. No reference is made to Monsanto's participation in the meeting in Hyderabad.
Unilever and Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL) - its Indian subsidiary that markets several popular brand-name products, e.g. Close-Up, Surf, and Lipton - have rejected the accusation of using child labour in hybrid cotton seed production. Unilever stated that it made sure that its suppliers complied with the agreement not to use child labour. Both HLL and 'Paras' (in which HLL now has a 26% share) were present in Hyderabad.
It was agreed in the meeting on 7th of September that the Association of Seed Industry would set up a Child Labour Eradication Group, including a representative from every company, that will conduct internal monitoring. This group will also co-operate with MV Foundation and others to design a collaborative work plan and facilitate external monitoring.
According to Dr. Sinha's communication to ICN, this would include giving lists of farmers contracted by companies to MVF and monitoring of child labour through their local Child Rights Protection Committees. In addition training programmes, exposure visits and public meetings are envisaged. The MV Foundation also has a long and successful experience in mobilising communities against child labour and preparing working children to enter full-time formal education. During the last twelve years around 250,000 children have thus been withdrawn from work and entered into schools. MVF's view that 'no child should work and every child should be in full-time education' has also become the policy of the government Andhra Pradesh.
In March 2004 there will be a new meeting of companies and MV Foundation together to take stock of the progress made. The India Committee of the Netherlands, Amnesty International Netherlands, Novib/Oxfam Netherlands and FNV Mondiaal will continue to monitor the results of the agreement reached with the MV Foundation and the resolution of the Association of Seed Industry.
Gerard Oonk, The India Committee of the Netherlands October 2003
The India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) is an independent NGO which informs the public in the Netherlands about India and how social, economic and political developments in the West influence the daily lives of millions of Indians. ICN's website is at http://www.indianet.nl
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