GUJARAT, INDIA, January 2012
Hundreds of thousands children in India are involved in picking and processing cotton. Many are kept out school, work in dangerous conditions and some are not even paid. Campaigners say the big UK clothing stores should do much more to stop child labour being used in their supply chains. One of the main cotton producing areas is Gujarat in Western India. From there Humphrey Hawksley sent this report.
In a lush green field, speckled with white flowering buds, a little girl in a dirty yellow dress, her eyes squinting against overhead sun, her arms covered in scratches from her work speaks in monosyllables about her life.
Kali isn’t from here, and she has no idea where her parents are. She has a child’s face, but any playfulness seems long drained from it. Her expression is dulled; her movements robotic as she prizes open the dark green bud.
Pristine raw cotton springs out. It’s like the cotton wool we buy in chemist shops. Kali drops it into a sack and opens another bud.
She thinks she’s ten years old, but she’s not sure. She is illiterate and she doesn’t go to school – one of perhaps half a million children who work in the cotton industry in India. There are several million around the world.
No-one knows how many, because no real checks are made, but driving around northern Gurjarat children in cotton fields are easy to find.
Kali is at the bottom end of a global supply chain whose top end finishes in our high street stores and fashion show cat walks. Worldwide revenues are measured in the trillions.
The next stage is the factory. Inside you get what labour activists describe as the horror of the white cloud. Cotton dust is so dangerous it can cause chronic lung problems at an early age.
We visited three factories, but I don’t plan to name them in order to avoid repercussions against the workers. The sites were all pretty much the same, and despite what we saw, managers insisted that everything was in order.
Raw cotton is pushed down into machines that process it to be made into thread.
It’s called ginning.
The air is thick with cotton dust. My chest tightened immediately. My throat became irritable and my eyes began to water. The noise was deafening. The workers were mainly women and young girls. Some looked no more than ten or eleven. None had masks or safety clothing.
Next to the machine room in one factory was a warehouse where young men and boys were piling cotton into baskets that were carried out on their heads – the white fluff stuck to their skin, their hair and their clothes.
Another factory had an old machine whose logo announced it was made in Manchester. It brought to mind William Blake’s descriptions of Britain’s ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ in the early 19th Century when may have been referring to similar factories here. They were closed down long ago because living conditions for the workers were seen to be unacceptable.
But that poses the question – given the present trend towards globalisation – why similar working conditions remain acceptable for children and workers in India and elsewhere.
Despite phone calls and e-mails, none of the main retailers agreed to be interviewed about their cotton supply chains. Some did issue statements saying they did not tolerate abuse and were committed to fair labour practices. The British government simply said it supported all activity to give better working conditions to those working to supply UK companies.
The muted response is not unusual and the activists that guided us around Gujurat said they had been asking for help for years, but without success.
Cotton is only one example of tainted supply chains. Millions of children are also forced to harvest cocoa for chocolate or coltan, the metal used in our mobile phones – sold in glittering shopping malls across the world.
What perhaps is surprising is how little has changed over the centuries.
In Gujarat, I happened to be carrying Voltaire’s satirical novel of the optimistic adventurer Candide, in which he describes a meeting between the hero and a desolate sugar worker in South America who comments simply on his work and injuries: “It is the price we pay for the sugar you eat in Europe.”
Candide was published in 1759. More than 250 years later, I met 23-year-old Gohil Maganbhai who started work when he was twelve and lost a thumb in a ginning machine.
And at the last site we visited, we found Pryanka and Versha. They huddled up outside against the factory wall, as they told their stories. Like Kali, their homes were far away. They both said they were eleven years old, sent here by their parents and trafficked in through a labour agency. They never saw their wages. The money went straight to their parents – after the agent took a cut.
It was impossible not to reflect on Voltaire and ask whether the plight of Kali, Gohil, Pryanka and Versha is simply the price they pay for the cotton we buy in Europe.