Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Not even the rain has such small hands

Those of us with school-aged children probably respond especially strongly to stories about child laborers around the world, children much like ours but without the protections of law or economic security against exploitation, abuse, and exhaustion. My six-year-old daughter has terrific manual dexterity and loves sewing and crafts. Right now she fits these pursuits into her limited free time between school and activities, comfortable regular meals and bedtimes. Under other circumstances, she might be putting in 16-hour days making beaded clothing for a pittance. It’s an unbearable thought.

The March 10 Forbes has an extensive article on child labor, mostly in agriculture, and in particular detailing the problems of the GE cottonseed industry, undertaken by Indian farmers contracted to companies like Monsanto and Syngenta. According to the article, there are between 12 and 50 million children under the age of 14 working in India.

Cottonseed farmer Talari Babu is a slim, wiry man dressed, when a reporter visited him, in black for a Hindu fast. "Children have small fingers, and so they can remove the buds very quickly," he says, while insisting that he no longer employs the underage. "They worked fast, much faster than the adults, and put in longer hours and didn't demand long breaks. Plus, I could shout at them and beat or threaten them if need be to get more work out of them." He could also tempt them with candy and cookies and movies at night. Babu says that pressure from Monsanto and the MV Foundation, an NGO in Andhra Pradesh backed by the Dutch nonprofit Hivos, forced him to quit using child labor.

But many farmers still use children for this delicate and dangerous work.

The pollination work lasts for 70 to 100 days and is followed by cotton-picking staggered over several months. Children's hands are ideal for the delicate work with stamens and pistils. Their bodies are no better at withstanding the poisons. At least once a week, says Davuluri Venkateshwarlu, head of Glocal, farmers spray the fields with pesticides like Nuvacron, banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and endosulfan, methomyl and Metasystox, considered by the EPA to be highly toxic. Venkateshwarlu ticks off the effects of overexposure: diarrhea, nausea, difficulty in breathing, convulsions, headaches and depression.

In other parts of India, children are producing GM tomato, eggplant, okra and chili seeds for the American market, again under heavy pesticide regimens, and earning 5 to 10 cents per hour. Other young kids are doing dangerous stone work in quarries, turning out decorative stones and cobbles for American yards and gardens. The garment industry, of course, is a familiar offender, as well as producers of handmade carpets and decorative items. Here’s one group of very young boys who live together in a tiny Delhi room room making sparkly picture frames with sequins and bits of glass:

In one such room, where the only piece of furniture is a low workbench, 10-year-old Akbar sits on the floor and mixes two powders into a doughy adhesive, his fingers blackened by the chemicals. Another boy spreads a thin layer of the mixture on a photo frame and a third, seated on his haunches, starts pasting tiny pieces of mirrors and sequins along the border. He sways back and forth, a habit most kids have developed to keep the blood flowing through their limbs as they sit for several hours. Decorating one 5-by-5-inch frame consumes six child-hours. The boys, who all live in the room and cook their own food here, typically work from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. for $76 a month. Many have teeth stained from cigarettes they smoke and tobacco they chew to relieve the tedium.

The whole article is worth reading.

While India has passed some limited child labor laws, they are only loosely enforced. Likewise, the many familiar corporations mentioned in the article—not only Monsanto and Syngenta, and Bayer, but the Gap, Lowe’s, Target, Ikea, Bloomingdale’s, and other importers of goods-- have policies against buying from contractors who exploit child labor. Clearly, having a policy on the books does not constitute sufficient oversight.

In the seed industry in particular, it is important to remember that a plant grown in the U.S. may still spring from seed harvested across the world by very young laborers, on behalf of companies who reap giant profits from the transaction.

One of many reasons to know where your food comes from.

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