The army of child labour supporting the world’s cotton industry
Children in some of the world’s largest cotton-producing countries are serving as underpaid, free or forced labourers to feed the global demand for textiles, a new report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) reveals.
‘The Children behind Our Cotton’ details the shocking conditions endured by more than an estimated one million children – some as young as five – who work 12-hour days in extremes of hot and cold weather, many suffering physical, verbal and sometimes sexual abuse.
China, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Uzbekistan and Turkey – six of the world’s top seven cotton producers – have been reported to use child labour in their cotton fields. In India, where as much as 70% of the country’s estimated 100 million child labourers work in agriculture, several hundred thousand children – mostly girls – sacrifice their education and health to produce hybrid cottonseed for a thriving industry.
“Global cotton production is worth in the region of US$40 billion annually,” Juliette Williams, Programme Director of EJF, says. “But it is effectively subsidised by children earning at most $2 a day, if anything at all, for their back-breaking contribution. Worse, in the world’s third largest cotton exporter, Uzbekistan, child labour is state-sponsored.”
The report includes the voices of cotton child labourers, who describe their schooling being sacrificed, beatings and extreme tiredness from carrying out heavily physical and demanding work. Child labourers are required to sow and pick cotton; cross-pollinate plants to produce hybrid seeds; weed and hoe; remove pests; carry heavy loads; and look after animals.
In countries like Uzbekistan and Pakistan, children spray pesticides, commonly used in cotton production but which pose serious health and safety risks. EJF field research in October 2007 in India discovered children in the fields during the spraying season where plants were soaked with chemicals.
“Children were working on cotton plants that had been sprayed with chemicals only moments before, without any protection,” Duncan Copeland, EJF campaigner, says. “Most of the children we interviewed complained of nasty side-effects like fainting and sickness from exposure to pesticides, which is obviously a serious cause for concern in conventional and Bt cotton production.”
EJF is urging retailers and manufacturers to examine their supply chains and categorically guarantee that no child labour has been used at any stage in the production of their cotton goods. EJF is also calling upon consumers to demand accountability from their retailers to help put an end to child labour in the world’s cotton fields; to ask questions about where their cotton comes from, and under what conditions it was produced.
“Practical measures can swiftly be taken to ensure transparent sourcing of cotton products, such as a labelling scheme that identifies the country of origin of the cotton as well as the country of manufacture,” says Juliette Williams. “The onus falls on actors throughout the supply chain, including the end consumer, to make sure our cotton is more sustainably and ethically produced.”
The Environmental Justice Foundation is a UK-based NGO working internationally. The organisation campaigns on issues its grassroots partners work locally to tackle, including human rights and environmental abuses in cotton production, pirate fishing and shrimp farming; the use of pesticides; and wildlife endangerment.
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