Forced child labour rampant in Uttar Pradesh sugarcane fields: Oxfam study


By Rajiv Shah

A 14-year-old boy and his older brother were hired by an agent from Bihar under the pretext of getting them a job in a shoe factory in Uttar Pradesh. The agent brought with him a dozen-odd to Uttar Pradesh under the pretext of offering work to them in a factory. Only upon arrival in Muzaffarnagar, the boys were told that they would be working in a sugarcane field.

The farmer who hired the two brothers upon knowing that they have been cheated agreed to release both of them if their families could pay back Rs 10,000, which he had already paid as commission to the agent. Since the family did not have the resources to return this money, the younger sibling was left behind to work and compensate for the commission paid to the agent.

The boy had to agree to work at a meagre salary of Rs 2000 per month, with a total of five months of unpaid work, to repay the commission, says a study, which cites the incident as an example of prevalence of child labour in Uttar Pradesh.

Released by the high-profile NGO Oxfam India, and titled “Human Cost of Sugar: A farm-to-mill assessment of sugar supply chain in Uttar Pradesh”, the study quotes farmers as stating that “children in the age group 12-16 years, are brought by labour agents from Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh”, adding, they are “are either unpaid or underpaid”.

Pointing out that migrant children were found to be working in sugarcane fields in Muzaffarnagar and Meerut, the study, authored by Shankhamala Sen of the Association for Stimulating Know-how (ASK), with inputs from Namit Agarwal and Pooja Adhikari (Oxfam), finds “several forms of exploitation faced by the child migrant workers, as shared by farmers and local villagers.”

The study says, “The child migrant workers living in the private space of the farmers’ houses are often abused verbally and physically. In some cases the farmers do not provide adequate food to these children, forcing them to run away from their jobs and village due to extremely abusive conditions.”

Stating that “false information” is provided about “nature of work at the time of hiring”, the study says, “Children are often hired by agents under false pretext of jobs in factories and sweatshops in Uttar Pradesh. They or their parents get to know about the actual nature of work, only on arriving at the village farms.”

It adds, “The agents pay lump sum advance money to the parents while hiring the children, due to which the parents are unable to withdraw the children from the work. The farmers also pay a commission to the agents due to which they try to recover the cost for as long as possible by making the children work, even after they get to know that the children have been hired under such false pretext.”

Asserting that the child workers are paid “extremely low wages”, the study says, “The wages received by the child workers is extremely low ranging between Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000 per month. The children or their families usually have no bargaining power in this matter as it is always the agents who negotiate their wages with the farmers.”

It adds, “The agents do not care about their salaries because the commission is fixed irrespective of the salary amount that is committed by the farmers for these children. Hence, children end up working under such severe forms of exploitation for such small amounts of money.”

Then, says the study, there is “non-payment of salary by the agents”, noting that “the farmers often handover the entire salary of the child workers to the agents at the end of the season. Often there are instances when the agents do not give the money to the child workers or their families and abscond with it.”

In fact, it adds, “The children and their families do not receive any payment in such cases, after 8-9 months of hard work in the sugarcane fields.”

Referring to the simultaneous prevalence of bonded labour in sugarcane fields in Uttar Pradesh, the study gives cites the example of a respondent from Muzaffarnagar, a worker “who wanted a loan of Rs 5 lakh to build a new house. He offered to work for a farmer in exchange of this loan unsure of the rate of interest he would be charged. The worker agreed to work at a daily wage of Rs 200.”

“In this arrangement”, the study says, “It would take him 6.8 years to repay only the principal amount of the loan, with the interest amount being over and above that.”

The study finds that the government departments “are understaffed at the district level”, and the “labour inspectors do not have the time and resources to monitor the various labour practices at the farm level whether pertaining to child labour, forced labour or other violations.”

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