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India and ILO to Map Cotton Supply Chain to Halt Child Labor

The southern Indian state of Telangana is embarking on a supply-chain-mapping project with the International Labour Organization to eliminate forced and child labor from its cotton fields and spinning mills.

The three-year initiative will mark the first time India has taken an “integrated approach to identify both child and bonded labor,” Eslavath Gangadhar, a labor official, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which reported the news this week.

The issue is particularly salient because recent surveys show more than 80 percent of child labor cases stem from the agriculture industry, Gangadhar said. The cotton supply chain is one of the hardest to track, experts say, because of the sheer number of stages involved from seed to finished garment.

India, the world’s second largest producer of cotton after China, was the only country named by a 2016 U.S. Department of Labor report for harboring forced and child labor in both its cottonseed-production and cotton-growing sectors. A 2015 study from the India Committee of the Netherlands and the Stop Child Labour Coalition estimated that 200,000 children under the age of 14 toil in the country’s cottonseed industry—or double what they found in 2010. Two-thirds of them, it noted, are girls, and most, if not all, have permanently dropped out of school.

Children are hired for seed production because their nimbler hands are more suited to the delicate work, the report’s authors said. Underaged workers also more easily exploited for far lower wages than their adult counterparts.

“Farmers hire children in preference to adults because farmers can squeeze out higher productivity from children per day,” they wrote. “Children will work longer hours, will work much more intensively and they are generally much easier to control than adult workers—whether through verbal or physical abuse or through inexpensive treats like chocolate or hair ribbons.”

The ILO project will map six of Telangana’s 10 cotton-growing districts for labor violations, train officials from different government departments to identify and stop forced labor in the fields, and examine gender pay gaps and collective-bargaining rights for agriculture workers, Gangadhar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“In the long run, the aim is to promote social dialogue and empower workers in keeping with the fundamental principles and rights of the workplace,” said Ranjit Prakash, ILO’s project coordinator for India.