Human Rights Watch
Child slaves abandoned to India's silk industry
Burn, beating and 12-hour days for bonded children
The Indian government is failing to protect the rights of hundreds of
thousands of children who toil as virtual slaves in the country's silk
industry, Human Rights Watch said in a new report
The 85-page report, "Small Change: Bonded Child Labor in India's
Silk Industry," calls on the Indian government to implement its national
laws to free and rehabilitate these "bonded children." Bound
to their employers in exchange for a loan to their families, they are
unable to leave while in debt and earn so little that they may never be
free. A majority of them are Dalits, so-called untouchables at the bottom
of India's caste system.
"The Indian government claims there are no bonded children in India,"
said Zama Coursen-Neff, counsel to Human Rights Watch's children's rights
division. "In fact, they're everywhere. They are easy to find."
Human Rights Watch interviewed children, employers, government officials
and members of nongovernmental-organizations in three states that form
the core of India's sari and silk industries: Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh
and Tamil Nadu.
At every stage of the silk industry, bonded children as young as five
years old work 12 or more hours a day, six and a half or seven days a
week. Children making silk thread dip their hands in boiling water that
burns and blisters them. They breathe smoke and fumes from machinery,
handle dead worms that cause infections, and guide twisting threads that
cut their fingers. As they assist weavers, children sit at cramped looms
in damp, dim rooms. They do not go to school and are often beaten by their
By the time they reach adulthood, they are impoverished, illiterate, and
often crippled by the work, the report said.
Human Rights Watch first investigated bonded child labor in India in 1996.
Since then, the Supreme Court made rehabilitation of child workers a legal
requirement, and India's National Human Rights Commission has successfully
pressured some local governments to act.
"The government has taken a number of steps in the right direction
since our first investigation. The National Human Rights Commission's
involvement is especially encouraging," Coursen-Neff said. "However,
many of the small improvements are now being rolled back."
High-level government officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch denied
that children were bonded or work in factories; they claimed to have therefore
shifted their focus to raising public awareness about child labor, instead
of freeing children and prosecuting employers.
"Most government efforts never reached beyond high-profile industries
like carpets and beeri cigarettes," said Coursen-Neff. "Instead
of living up to its promises, the Indian government is starting to backtrack,
claiming the problem is being solved. Our research shows that it is not."
Human Rights Watch also urged the government to recognize and address
the connection between caste and bondage. Coursen-Neff pointed out that
caste-based violence and discrimination, not just poverty, keep many Dalit
families in bondage.
"Caste is one of the foundations of the bonded labor system,"
said Coursen-Neff. "Dalits are denied access to land, forced to work
in degrading conditions, and expected to perform free labor. Upper-caste
communities inflict violence and economic boycotts on Dalits who challenge
their expected social roles, keeping Dalit families in bondage and a perpetual
state of poverty."
Human Rights Watch called on international donors to pressure the national
and state governments in India to enforce the child labor and bonded labor
laws. International donors are increasingly funding some schools for former
"Funding schools is important, but international donors should do
more," said Coursen-Neff. "Donors must pressure the Indian government
to enforce its own laws to free bonded children. Otherwise, schools won't
reach children who can't leave work voluntarily -- those who are working
Human Rights Watch also called on the national and state governments to
greatly expand cooperation with non-governmental organizations to address
the problem of bonded child labor.
Major Silk States:
Karnataka, in the south, is India's primary producer of silk thread.
There, production still depends on bonded children. Most are under age
14 and are Dalit or Muslim. In 2001, the state government promulgated
an ambitious plan to eliminate all child labor, but it was not in operation
at the time of Human Rights Watch's investigation one year later. A nine-year-old
boy bonded in Karnataka told Human Rights Watch: "At work the supervisor
used to beat me with a belt. He tied me up and beat me with a belt on
my back. He did this two or three times. . . . He tied a chain that was
attached to the wall and to my leg. . . . [The owner beat me] if I didn't
do my work properly."
In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, most attention has been
paid to child labor in the carpet industry, not silk. While bonded child
labor in carpets has not been eliminated, vigilance from the National
Human Rights Commission and pressure from domestic and international activists
has provoked the government to better enforce the law and to provide schools
and other social services. Much less attention has been paid to silk weaving,
where child labor that was in factories has been pushed into individual
homes. A 14 year-old boy who worked as a weaver's assistant in Varanasi,
Uttar Pradesh, told Human Rights Watch that he could not leave his loom
owner because he was paying off a loan, which in two years he had only
reduced from Rs.2,500 (U.S. $52) to Rs.475 (U.S. $9.90). "The owner
pays [a small salary] but deducts for the advance [loan]," he said.
"He deducts but won't write off the whole advance. . . . We only
make enough to eat."
In Tamil Nadu in the south, which has successfully identified more
bonded laborers than any other state, most state initiatives have focused
on children working in match and fireworks manufacture. However, the state
government has simply abandoned Supreme Court-mandated rehabilitation
of child workers for those children found after 1997, clear violation
of the court's order. In Kanchipuram district, a major silk sari weaving
area in Tamil Nadu, child bondage flourishes openly. A 13 year-old girl
working in a silk weaving factory in Kanchipuram told Human Rights Watch:
"Always [the weavers and owners] are beating me -- I don't like to
work. They always scold and shout. They beat me on the back and head.
They are always knocking their fists on my head or hitting me with a comb
[wood piece in the loom]. . . . We don't play at all."
Silk thread and silk fabric are also produced in other states in India.