Low Procurement Prices Fuelling Child Labour in Vegetable Seed Business

Nearly 156,000 children engaged in vegetable seed production in India; most women engaged in trade are not even paid minimum wages: Report

New Delhi: Nearly 156,000 minors, about 50,000 of them below 14 years of age, are currently engaged in producing vegetable seeds in India. Many of them have been employed by multinational and Indian companies. This apart, a large number of women employed in the work of producing seeds are not even being paid the minimum wages prescribed by the government. These and other aspects of exploitation of minors and women have been documented in a study, Soiled Seeds: Child Labour and Underpayment of Women in Vegetable Seed Production in India, by Davuluri Venkateswarlu, a long-term expert on the issue.

The report on the findings of Venkateswarlu, who studied the situation in the states of Maharashtra and Karnataka, which account for 80% of vegetable seed production of tomato, hot pepper and okra in India, has been released by the India Committee of the Netherlands in Utrecht.

“The large majority of [the children] are either Dalits, low caste or Adivasi (tribals). All of them are exposed to harsh working conditions, including poisonous pesticides and long working days,” the report said.

On how the future of these children was being impacted, the report said most of these children “drop out of school between 11 and 13 years of age”. As a result there has also been a rise in the number of adolescent children (14 to 18 years) who have been employed in seed production. Their numbers have gone up by over 37,000.

An important aspect, which the report highlights is that the children are not all in the unorganized sector. “Multinationals like Limagrain (French), Sakata (Japanese), Advanta (Indian) and East-West Seed (Dutch) had between 10-16% children below 14 years working at farms producing seeds for them. Indian companies show similar figures. All companies have around 30% adolescents working on supplier farms,” the report said.

Another key finding from the report is that women are mostly not paid the official minimum wage for their work. They are generally assigned tasks – like cross-pollination, weeding and harvesting – that pay less than activities performed by men, including spraying pesticides and applying fertiliser. “Depending on the specific region, women earn between 11 and 47% less than the official minimum wage. Multinationals are not performing better on wages with their suppliers than Indian companies. Activities by e.g. Nunhems/Bayer and Syngenta raising awareness on the issue and promoting record keeping with farmers have not led to payment of at least minimum wages,” the report noted with concern.

A major cause of the poor condition of the farm worker was also the low prices paid for procurement by the companies, the report said. “Soiled Seeds again confirms previous studies that low procurement paid by companies to farmers have a strong impact on both child labour and the underpayment of women. Wages are higher in locations where procurement prices are higher,” it said.

A young girl working in a seed farm. Credit: Soiled Seeds

A young girl working in a seed farm. Credit: Soiled Seeds

A sample of farmers, it said, shows again that with present prices, farmers do not make any profit if they would pay minimum wages to all labourers. “This also implies that farmers have a strong incentive to hire (cheaper) children instead of adults. Higher procurement prices are therefore a pre-condition to pay at least minimum wages and fully eradicate child labour from seed farms. Of course other interventions are required to solve both issues.”

On what is now the main driver of hope, the report said there has been a “small decline in the average number of young children employed per acre in vegetable seed production in India.” It observed that interventions by companies, local government and non government organizations help as has been demonstrated in parts of Karnataka and Maharashtra.

“A positive development is also that more companies have now started to take action on the issue of child labour. The initiatives undertaken by Syngenta, Bayer, Monsanto, Advanta and Namdhari had – in varying degrees – a positive impact in reducing child labour at the seed farms. Recently – partly after the draft report was sent to companies – East-West Seed, Kalash Seeds, Nuziveedu, Limagrain, Sakata and Mahyco also started interventions but,given the short time-frame, with still limited or unclear impact. East-West Seed has issued a written response to the report, showing encouraging first signs of improvement,” the statement by India Committee of the Netherlands said.

On the issue of minimum wages, it said new and potentially promising initiatives have been undertaken. “Syngenta has for example taken the initiative to work towards at least payment of minimum wages to all workers after a recent report.” Also 10 seed companies – both multinational and Indian – as well as three NGOs and the researcher of Soiled Seeds participated in a multi-stakeholder consultation a couple of months ago on implementation of minimum wages and the eradication of child labour and reported on it.

The report said the vegetable seeds business has some big names in it. “The multinational companies Monsanto (US), Limagrain (French), Syngenta (Swiss) and Sakata (Japanese) have a share of 47% of the world market of vegetable seeds.” It said some major Dutch companies were also in the business of vegetable seeds.

Soiled Seeds also makes suggestions for improvements in farm practices. “An area-based approach to tackle child labour and in getting all working children in these areas into education is to be preferred. Such a Child Labour Free Zone approach has yielded good results, including in cottonseed production areas,” it said.

Further, the seed industry should not hide behind legislation that permits child labour on family farms. “The working hours in seed cultivation imply that working children will frequently become dropouts. Therefore, the proposed amendment to the Indian Child Labour Act that allows child labour in family enterprises should be reconsidered.”

Finally, the report has suggested that every seed company, the National Seed Association of India as well as the Dutch sector association Plantum should have a grievance mechanism where the complaints of workers and farmers are dealt with and individually or collectively solved.