This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Gazal Malik. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Revaluating Child Labour In Agriculture: The Sugarcane Case of India

PC: Denis Macwan, Prayas Centre For Labour Research And Action

The recorded evidence of slavery in sugarcane date back to the 15th century, with armies of slaves being bought together—mostly from Western Africa to work on sugarcane farms on the New World Plantations. The peak of the 19th century saw more than 10 million Africans forcibly migrating to most of the sugarcane cultivation regions in what became to be known as ‘The Trade Triangle’ or slavery in sugarcane. In the 21st century, after slavery has legally been abolished, this historical case of sugarcane production still finds relevance in countries where the agrarian economy and the globalised trade of sugarcane has led to modern enslavement practices such as child labour, forced labour and bonded labour.

In India, the second largest producer of sugarcane globally, armies of millions of immensely deprived tribal migrants are bought to sugarcane producing areas every year by paying them an advance at usurious interest to legitimise bondage. Lack of employment opportunities in their native villages, infertile agricultural land, political conflict over land and water, combined with the deeply rooted institute of the caste system and gender inequality are some of the crucial factors forcing them to take the debt.

Most of the cane cutters remain indebted for generations despite working endlessly at the camp sites (sugarcane cultivating farms) during the harvest. These circumstances force their children to drop out of school or attend classes only when they go back to their native villages, while they toil their time away engaging in unpaid labour, cooking, cleaning and taking care of their siblings during the seasonal harvesting period.

Two hundred thousand children migrate with their families in the Indian state of Maharashtra alone to its western regions for working in sugarcane farms, often unaware of their living and working conditions which include temporary settlements, lack of access to water, sanitary facilities, medical assistance and electricity. During the harvest period, the entire family is engaged in labour where one can easily spot young adolescent boys cutting the cane and children piling it up. The situation is worse for women and young girls who have an additional burden of domestic chores, taking care of children both inside and outside of farms and fetching water from miles away.

On an average, these families have to work for 18 to 22 hours a day, as they have to stay awake for the loading and unloading of the cane and often sleep without eating as the women are too tired to cook. Some expecting mothers also work as cane cutters, going into labour on the farm itself, with no medical assistance from anyone except their fellow women cane cutters. Once the child is born, the mother is back to work after a rest period of 7 to 10 days, along with the newborn.

Lack of industry-specific data and the tangled system of bondage have for years kept the exact number of children working in the sector unknown. However, this scarcity cannot be used to deny that child labour has been and is a significant and suppressed issue in sugarcane production. According to the recent global estimates by the International Labour Organisation, agriculture is the largest employer of child labourers. The United States Department of Labor (USDOL) links sugarcane production, an agrarian product to child labour in 17 countries, some of which also happen to be the largest exporters of sugarcane, including India, Brazil, Thailand and Cambodia to name a few.

In fact, the most common tasks performed by children in sugarcane farming are hazardous in nature such as the application of agro-chemicals for crop protection and manual harvesting which is done with the help of sharp tools often leading to injury. Additional risks include exposure to pesticides, insects, snakes and extreme weather conditions. The burning of cane also leads to inhaling of fumes and dust, which can cause respiratory diseases and irritation of the skin or eyes as long-term consequences.

While smaller grassroots organisations in some parts of India have been taking steps to educate the children of sugarcane workers by providing them residential schools and also addressing their health as well as psycho-social needs, interventions from the state and central government are quite weak. This also reflects the paradox of acceptance of child labour, bonded labour and forced labour, and at the same time, the denial of these practices.

The ones who have steering power over the social order of sugarcane growing zones, as well as the political economy of sugar production, have failed to pay serious attention towards the pathetic working and living conditions and inhuman state of existence of sugarcane harvesters and their children. A key example is the very limited and somewhat functional ‘Shakar Saalas’ or ‘Sugarcane Schools’ under the Right to Education Act in India and non-implementation of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act in regions that need them the most.

Along with human rights violations such as child and forced labour and debt bondage, the sugarcane crop also has a history and present of land acquisitions and conflict over natural resources with the government, as well as the companies at the expense of small scale food producers, marginalised farmers and tribal populations. While the food and beverage companies, as well as businesses procuring the by-products of sugarcane, do not directly own many resources such as land and water, they are collectively the biggest buyers of products grown in countries plagued by human rights violations and bought by millions.

For instance, the ‘Big 10’ collectively generates revenues of over $1.1 billion a day that comes from commodities grown and labour procured from countries with a record of labour rights violations where men, women and children put in endless number of hours for labour that does not even pay them close to the minimum wage, or where their labour is counted as a repayment of never-ending debt.

On a positive note, there sure have been some collaborative efforts from the buyers’ end to maintain cleaner supply chains and ensure decent work and better standards in sugarcane. Initiatives such as due diligence, risk assessments, supply chain mapping, supporting smallholders, and driving improvements in decent work through supplier codes of conduct and third-party monitoring are some measures increasingly been used by companies. However, it is extremely important for businesses to consider the socio-economic inequalities in regions where their supply chains are connected, which requires transparency and knowledge of the most inaccessible tiers of the supply chain, such as the farm level working condition of the marginalised migrant labourers.

The complexities of supply chains can no longer be used to rationalise the existence of practices such as child labour, forced labour, debt bondage and how these structurally have worse consequences for millions of young boys and girls, men and women. This will only be made possible if child labour as an issue is seen with its various intersectionalities along with issues of the communities and social groups that are engaged in the supply chains. The stakeholders benefiting from crops such as sugarcane must take the accountability of ensuring the rights of the most marginalised workers and their children in the supply chain and be extremely diligent of how these complex social and political realities shape issues of child and forced labour to fulfill the needs of global trade and consumer demands.

To achieve this, it is important to build interventions and practices keeping in consideration the areas below:

  • Breaking the vicious cycle of debt bondage to revaluate and address the causes of child and forced labour in agriculture, particularly with a gender lens
  • Identifying and generating gender-disaggregated data on child labour and its worst forms in agriculture and its sub-sectors, while keeping the fault lines in mind
  • Advocating for policy reforms regarding education for children of migrant workers at the state and central level and also ensure the synchronisation of international guidelines for responsible business conduct and child labour with the same.
  • Sustainable, meaningful and relevant education and vocational skills for children of migrant workers in agriculture in the source as well as destination areas
  • Minimum wages and decent living and working conditions for legally standardised working hours and ensuring they are gender equal irrespective of their gender or caste
  • Addressing the root causes of discrimination as well as the factors that solidify it and most importantly considering them as indicators of child labour, forced labour and bonded labour in supply chains
  • Assessment of supply chains from top to bottom to ensure the rights of workers at the foot
  • Evaluating the impact of procurement practices of the supply chain on children, particularly with gender as a key concern
  • Promoting freedom of association and collective bargaining at the lowest of the tiers.

***This article is based on a recent visit to some native regions or sourcing areas of tribal sugarcane cutters in Gujarat and Maharashtra including discussions with their families, middle men/labour contractor, some local stakeholders, grassroots CSOs and trade unions.

You must be to comment.

More from Gazal Malik

Similar Posts

By PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia) India

By iProbono

By Purva Bharati Educational Trust

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below