Human Rights Initiatives in Hybrid Cotton Seed Production in India

By S. Duncan 7/13/2009

In many countries, children spend most of the day at school with friends or at home with family.  In India, many children up to 14-years-old spend dawn to dusk stooped over in a cotton seed production field, with no food or rest. In India, it is estimated 50 percent of cotton field workers are under 14-years-old.

“Employment of child labor in cotton seed production has been a practice ever since the seed companies moved to hybridization,” Mohan Rao, human rights lead for Monsanto India, said. “Hybridization warrants increased work force for pollination work, thus giving scope for children to work. There is a mindset that children with tender fingers can do a better job at low cost.”

Since 2005, when Monsanto acquired Emergent Genetics, the Monsanto human rights team and India seed manufacturing team have worked to reduce child labor in cotton seed production fields, cutting the incidents on Monsanto-contracted fields from 20 percent in 2005 to 0.5 percent in 2008.

With Monsanto’s purchase of Emergent Genetics, India hybrid cottonseed production brought a surprising reality to Monsanto: many workers on the fields of its contracted seed producers were less than 14-years-old. In 2006, Monsanto, along with key stakeholders—local government agencies, the International Labour Organization, and other seed producers—launched the Child Care Program (CCP) campaign, in conjunction with the Monsanto Human Rights Policy, to tackle child labor at Monsanto cotton seed production sites. Monsanto India put together a team to reduce child labor by implementing strategies under the umbrella of the CCP like awareness campaigns, requirements in contracts, programs to reward or punish farmers for their actions, and attendance monitoring. As a result, 250 children were found and removed from fields in 2008.

“The pioneering efforts of Monsanto in elimination of child labor are appreciable,” Dr. Davuluri Venkateswarlu, director of global research and consultancy services in Hyderabad, said. “The consistent efforts are resulting in a gradual decrease in the number of child cases working in Monsanto cotton fields.”

In addition to a direct approach to reduce child labor, the team wanted to help rehabilitate those affected by child labor and improve the living standards of the community. Last June, in collaboration with the Voluntary Organisation for Rural Development Society, the Australian Foundation for People of Asia and Pacific, and the Monsanto Fund, the team opened a learning center in Nandyal, Andhra Pradesh, which provides education for up to 120 children. The team also trained growers in field safety, and distributed personal protective equipment to protect growers and workers from pesticide exposure and anti-venom kits to protect from snakebites. To reward entire communities for maintaining child labor-free cotton fields, a program called Model Villages was put into place that publicly awards all zero child labor villages with infrastructure upgrades.

“I’m proud of this program,” Rao said. “Specifically, I’m proud of the transformation of grower mindset toward social change and building a positive attitude to address the social issue, protecting the child’s right for education and thus changing the lives of rural children, and improving the quality of farmer’s lives through adopting safe practices.”