Boiling cocoons, hauling baskets of mulberry leaves, and embroidering saris, children are working at every stage of the silk industry. This report focuses on silk thread production and sari weaving because these are the stages most reliant on bonded children. These children work twelve or more hours a day, six and a half or seven days a week, under conditions of physical and verbal abuse. They suffer injuries from fumes, machinery, sharp threads, boiling water, and dead worms. Girls face particular abuses, including sexual abuse by employers.88
Making Silk Thread-Reeling and Twisting
Nazir Ahmed, eleven years old, explained how he did this work: "I clean the place with water, fill basins with water, put in the cocoons. At 11:00 a.m., I go home for lunch for a half hour, finish, and start working. By that time, we put in fresh water and cocoons."89 Small children generally start out "picking worms," which, as twelve-year-old Mohammad A. explained, means "you thread [unreel] the cocoons out and the worms go down below. You let the water out the drain and the worms are left. It is deep. You take the worms out."90
After the cocoons are cooked, the tangled mass of silk on the outside of the cocoon is peeled off by hand and set aside as silk waste that is to be processed separately. The reeler then unwinds the end of the filament and threads it on a draw pin linked to a wheel that winds the fibers drawn from the cocoon. The filaments are then reeled and re-reeled on a series of spindles, combining two strands into four strands in a process called "doubling."
Yeramma S., eleven years old, was living at an NGO-run school when Human Rights Watch interviewed her:
Mayekalai J., who told us he was ten years old but looked much younger, had been living at an NGO school for two years:
Karuthakannan N., age fourteen and Dalit, had been living at an NGO residential school for two months when we interviewed him. Before that he worked in a silk reeling operation along with two other children. He attended formal school in addition to working, and because he was not working full-time, he could not get a loan from the owner. At the persuasion of an NGO volunteer, he came to the school to live because, he explained, "my parents wanted to take an advance [loan] and send me to work full time. The owner kept demanding this. Even now when I stay here, the owner comes and tries to take me to the silk unit. . . . I originally went because my parents forced me to go and do this thing. Otherwise I wouldn't have done this work."95
S. R. Kollur, twelve years old, told Human Rights Watch:
Structure of the Bondage in Silk Reeling and Twisting
Human Rights Watch visited a silk twisting factory in Bangalore Rural District in March 2002. The factory was notified shortly before we arrived, and we saw only six workers there, all of whom said they were adults. However, the factory supervisor told us that twenty-six people worked in the factory, some only part time, and that they were paid according to the amount of work they did.97 The total amount spent for their wages each month, he said, was about Rs. 5,000 (U.S.$104).98 Even if all of the workers were half time, each earned on average Rs. 192 (U.S.$4.00) a month, the equivalent of Rs. 384 (U.S.$8.00) a month for full time work, far below the minimum wage.
Children typically reported working ten to fourteen hours a day, with breaks to eat, six days a week. Children will work for even longer when the demand for thread increases; for example, before a festival when women purchase new saris, factories will sometimes operate twenty-four hours a day. The supervisor at a silk twisting factory told Human Rights Watch, "Outside employers are taking business away. We have to work very fast-day and night."99 Thirteen-year-old D.G. Sagar, who was Dalit, said that when he worked at night, "I didn't like working in the morning, but the owner would insist. He demanded that I come in the morning because I was a good worker. Because the owner was so insistent, I would take the extra work and work day and night."100
Most children working in reeling units are fired at about age fifteen or sixteen and replaced with their younger brothers or sisters; some will go to work in twisting units, but most must seek other work.101 Thus whatever skills they may have acquired in the silk unit do not help them in adulthood. Indeed, the injuries and illness suffered as child workers limits what work many can do as adults.
Working Conditions in Silk Reeling and Twisting
Anesha K., eleven years old, started picking worms when she was nine and had been at an NGO-run residential school for four months when we interviewed her. She showed us lumpy scars on her hands and explained: "I didn't like working because my hands would get infected. I got holes in my hands because I put them in the hot water and then they got infected. I couldn't eat. I had to eat with a spoon."103 Anesha K.'s shins, ankles, and feet were covered with burn scars from boiling water.
Sericin vapors from the boiling cocoons, smoke, diesel fumes from the machines, and poor ventilation cause respiratory ailments such as chronic bronchitis and asthma.104 Children also suffer cuts to their hands from the threads and from the machines while winding and twisting the silk thread. P. Kattaraman told Human Rights Watch: "The machinery was bad-it can cut your fingers. If you cut your finger, even then, you wouldn't get sent home. They would put coffee powder on it and you would keep working. There wasn't any medicine."105 P. Kattaraman showed us the bends of his fingers where the threads would cut. Thirteen-year-old D.G. Sagar who worked at a silk twisting unit from age five to age eleven said: "When I was working at night, the skin would come off of my fingers. I would get very sleepy and miss, and the machine would take off the skin."106
Standing at the twisting machines all day without rest or carrying ladles of hot cocoons, basins of dead worms, and other heavy materials causes children back and leg pain, and some suffer leg deformities, including bowleggedness.107
Medical examinations in early 2000 of two hundred children ages six to fourteen working in reeling and twisting in Ramanagaram and Channapatna taluks (subdivisions) of Bangalore Rural District found high rates of respiratory diseases (in 86 percent of children studied) and skin infections (in 70 percent of children studied).108 Children also complained of cuts and other injuries from threads and machines; headaches; pain in the back, legs, neck, and abdomen; colds and bronchitis; hearing loss; and vision problems.109 The noise from the twisting factories Human Rights Watch visited was deafening, and employers often play loud music in the mistaken belief that it will prevent hearing loss from the machines. Dim lighting inside the factories and the close eye children must keep on the threads and machines also causes vision loss.110
When children are injured or ill, they often must continue to work or lose the income, which forces them deeper into debt. Yenappa M. told us: "I got typhoid when I was working and I didn't want to work, but the owner forced me to. He told me to do what I was able, but he didn't pay me because I was sick. I took a loan at that time of Rs. 300 [U.S.$6.25]."111
Employer Abuse in Silk Reeling and Twisting
T. Basheer, age twelve, told us: "If we make some mistake, the owner beats us on the neck with a stick. If we get sick, the owner comes to our house, uses bad language, and takes us to work. He comes and scolds us and takes us back because he doesn't have a replacement."113
S. R. Kollur, a twelve-year-old boy who worked from age ten to eleven in a silk twisting unit, said: "Once, my legs were hurting, and I wanted to sit down. I cannot stand for a long time because it makes my legs hurt. I went to rest, and the owner kicked me in the legs."114
Several children told us that they ran away when they were beaten and that they were beaten again when caught. For example, Yenappa M. said that the factory owner beat him regularly: "I ran away sometimes because of the horrors at the factory. But I had no support. The owner went by scooter and caught me and brought me back. The owner was going around because I owed him the loan, and he searched for me and brought me back because of the loan."115
Yenappa M. fled from his owner to an NGO-run residential school four months before we interviewed him. He told us that he was thirteen, but he looked much younger than the other boys that age at the school. He showed us a scar on his forehead running from his left eyebrow to his hairline that he said was from a wooden bobbin thrown at him by the owner:
Girl factory workers also suffer sexual abuse from their employers.117 Activists and investigators in Bangalore Rural District have told Human Rights Watch that sexual abuse by factory owners is so prevalent that factory girls are shunned as potential brides because everyone assumes that these girls have been "touched"-molested or raped-by their employers.118
Moriculture and Cocoon Raising
While the vast majority of bonded children in India-an estimated 85 percent-are working in agriculture, they are also often the least visible.123 Moreover, entire families, particularly low-caste Hindus and Dalits, are extensively bonded in agriculture, which includes mulberry cultivation and leaf picking and hauling. In addition to the bondage itself, the hazards of children's work in agriculture are well-documented and include pesticide poisoning, injury from dangerous tools, and dropping out of school.124
-Nallanayaki P., thirteen years old, working in a silk weaving factory in Kanchipuram125
Varanasi and Kanchipuram are famous for their handwoven silk saris, which are often intricately embroidered with gold thread and can take up to a month to weave. An estimated 200,000 children under age fourteen are working in the silk industry in the Varanasi area, about half of whom are bonded to a non-family member.126 As already noted, approximately 40,000 to 50,000 children work in bondage on silk handlooms in Kanchipuram.127
Until around age fourteen or fifteen, children are usually too small to operate the looms themselves. Instead, they assist weavers by sitting next to them at the loom, legs dangling in the pit, catching the shuttle and embroidering the border. Girls and women also wind the weft thread onto bobbins that are loaded onto the shuttle and woven through the warp threads. In Varanasi town, in nearby Dalit villages, and in Kanchipuram, we saw girls and boys working at the looms, assisting weavers and winding thread on bobbins. We interviewed children bonded to non-family employers and children working for their own families, who themselves were bonded to traders.
In both Varanasi and Kanchipuram, even if they attended a night school, children reported working twelve to thirteen hours a day with breaks for breakfast and lunch. In Kanchipuram, children reported working seven days a week with two half-days off a month.
Girls rarely become weavers, which limits how much they can earn. Researchers in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where most silk weavers are Muslim, have found that girls' labor is nearly invisible.128 In this area, girls work inside homes filling bobbins and embroidering saris; when they work for someone outside the family, the work is still brought home.129 In contrast, in Kanchipuram, Human Rights Watch interviewed girls who worked both in others' homes and in factories. However, girls there are still much less likely than boys to become weavers or loom owners.130 When Human Rights Watch asked a group of weavers, assistants, and loom owners in Kanchipuram about women's work, one man responded: "Women wire the silk-they put it on bobbins and roll it. They don't weave as weavers. They do assistant work."131 According to another man, "10 percent of women are weaving. The rest do assistant work. Women can get Rs. 300 [U.S.$6.25] like the boys. Most are working at home. If they are weaving, they get the same as a man."132
Although adults can, and sometimes do, work as assistants, weavers prefer children. National Labour Institute researcher Babu P. Remesh, in a survey of labor in the Kanchipuram silk industry in 2000, found that weavers prefer children for the following reasons:
Unlike children bonded in silk thread production and certain other industries such as carpets, most weavers' child assistants continue to work in the industry as adults. Therefore, parents may also bond their children to a weaver in part for training, believing that children must learn weaving early under a "hard task master."134 According to Professor B.N. Juyal, an expert on child labor in the silk industry, while poverty is one reason children enter the weaving industry, other major causes are the great demand for children's labor, the belief that children are learning valuable skills, and socialization in the "traditional craft culture."135
Ten-year-old Puttu Lal works in Varanasi's market area, and we interviewed him at night after he had returned from work. He told us that he lives with his mother and one brother; his father is dead.138 Four years ago, he said, his mother bonded him for Rs. 1,000 (U.S.$21). Since then, every morning, seven days a week, he has woken up at 7:00 or 7:30 and gone to work making borders for saris. He told us that he works for twelve hours, with an hour break to go home for lunch. He makes Rs. 300 (U.S.$6.25) a month, but, he explained, some of that is taken out to pay the loan. He said he still owes Rs. 400 (U.S.$8.33) but that the family has borrowed more since the original loan. His boss's children go to school, he said, but he does not.139
Nesan S., also ten years old, said he had been working in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, assisting a weaver for the last two years.140 He told us that he earns Rs. 200 (U.S.$4.17) a month and is paying off a Rs. 6,000 ($125) advance that his family used to buy a loom on which his parents now work. "My father asked me to stop studying. I went to third standard [third grade], then I stopped," he explained.141 Nesan S. said he goes to work at 7:00 or 7:30 in the morning and has two half days off a month. We interviewed him on his first night back at a government-run night school. "I stopped coming two months ago because the owner had to increase production, so he stopped me from coming to school. This is my first day back," he told us.142 "I don't want to go to my job. I want to study in school. . . . My parents let me go to this school because there are no fees."143 Nesan S. also has a younger sister: "After one year my sister will also go to work. She is eight years old. She is not going regularly to the government school now. . . . My sister is not wanting to go to school. She will not come here [to the night school] when she goes to work."144 His parents did not want his sister to come to the night school, Nesan S. explained.
Arul G. told Human Rights Watch that two months before we interviewed him, his mother withdrew him from the government school in Kanchipuram and sent him to work in exchange for a Rs. 3,000 (U.S.$62.50) advance and a monthly salary of Rs. 200 ($4.17).145 The family used the money to buy a loom on which his father now weaves, he said. Arul G. is ten years old.146
N. Iraivan is fourteen years old and told Human Rights Watch that he had been working for the last three years as a loom assistant.147 He said that he owes Rs. 8,000 (U.S.$167), which his father took to pay off old debts for festivals, and earns Rs. 310 ($6.46) a month. He attends a government-run night school after work. "If I get sick," he told us, "the owner will scold me and shout and take one day's salary-Rs.10 [U.S.21¢] per day. If there is a mistake, he shouts. Otherwise, he is nice. Then he has to correct me."148 When we asked what he liked to do when he wasn't working or in school, he answered, "If there was no school, I would be at the loom itself. I can't escape from it."149
S. Kancha is eleven years old and told Human Rights Watch that he had been working for the last three years.150 He said that he earns Rs. 300 (U.S.$6.25) a week and is paying off a Rs. 6,000 ($125) advance, which his family took to construct a floor in their home. "If I get ill," he told us, "I will take leave from the job. I can't get a long leave-only a half day-but the owner won't withhold the money from my salary."151
Vimali T. explained that she started working at age nine or ten. At age fifteen, she was earning Rs. 350 (U.S.$7.29) a week and still owed Rs. 8,000 ($167).152
Vimali T. was attending night school for about two hours in the evening. When asked what she did for fun when she was not working or studying, she answered, "There is no play time for me. If I have time, I will work in the house. . . . When I am not working in the loom I will do heavy housework. I will take the manure and work in the cattle farm."154
Although thirteen years old, Nallanayaki P. looked about six. She told us she had a disease that keeps her from growing. She said she was working in a twenty-loom factory to pay off a Rs. 7,000 (U.S.$146) loan and making Rs. 230 ($4.79) a month, less than U.S.17¢ a day.155 "I don't like the work," she told us. "I can't go to school."156
In addition to these children, in Kanchipuram Human Rights Watch also interviewed:
· Chokkan K., age twelve, who said he had been working for the last five years to pay off a Rs. 7,000 (U.S.$146) loan;157
Eighteen-year-old Karpakavalli S. was a weaver, but, she said, her mother still worked as an assistant.162 She told us that she started working on the looms at age five and was earning Rs. 350 (U.S.$7.29) a month by age ten. Now, she said, she was earning Rs. 1,300 a month and from that was paying the loom owner Rs. 300 (U.S.$6.25) a month. However, she did not know how much she still owed. "Only my father will know," she told us.163 When we interviewed her, she had been attending a night school for about twenty days-before that, she had never attended school.
In contrast, the children of a loom owner, who himself held other children in debt bondage, lived in markedly different circumstances. All three of the loom owner's children were enrolled in school. We interviewed the two sons, who wore better clothes than the local bonded children, and, in an area where bonded children were particularly small physically, the owner's sons were taller and appeared to be in better health. The elder son was enrolled in eleventh standard (eleventh grade), had passed his ten standard exams with a high score, and aspired to join the Indian Air Force. Although at sixteen years old many boys would be weavers, he told us that he could only work as an assistant, suggesting that he simply had not spent much time working.164 The owner's younger son, studying in fifth standard (fifth grade), told us that he did not work at all:
The loom owner also told us that his daughter, whom we did not interview, was attending ninth standard.166
Structure of the Bondage in Silk Weaving
Child assistants are usually paid by the month beginning from nothing to around Rs. 100 (U.S.$2.08) a month and eventually reaching about Rs. 400 ($8.33) a month. Weavers attached to traders are typically paid by piece, depending on the intricacy of the design, with deductions for the advance, any defects, and-if the loom is rented-rent.172 According to National Labour Institute researcher Babu P. Remesh, who in 2000 conducted a survey of labor in Kanchipuram, the traders' control of every stage of the process-materials, design, production rate, and sales-allows them to minimize the piece rate.173 He found that weavers attached to traders (usually through a bond) made from Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 2,000 (U.S.$21 to $42), while non-bonded weavers in cooperatives (who nonetheless often bond a child assistant) made from Rs. 2,500 to Rs. 4,000 ($52 to $83) per piece, which would take from thirty to fifty days of weaving.174
In Varanasi, Human Rights Watch interviewed a man who, with his entire family, worked on a loom in their home. The family earns Rs. 300 (U.S.$6.25) for every sari woven, he said, and weaves about three saris a month, which they sell to a trader. "We can't survive on this," he told us. "We have to take loans."175 They take loans from the trader, who then deducts money from the payment for the saris. The last loan they took was for Rs. 2,000 (U.S.$42), about a year or eighteen months before. "We take a loan when we need it," he explained. "Who knows when it will get paid off?"176 This question was not rhetorical. The man later explained that he did not know when he would pay off his debt because the trader had not told him.177
Work-Related Injuries in Silk Weaving
A medical examination at a health camp for some eighty-five children released from bondage in Kanchipuram's silk looms in November 1997 found that all were malnourished, two had pulmonary tuberculosis, twenty-six had various skin infections, and many had vision, dental and hearing problems.178 Researchers in Uttar Pradesh have found similar problems among children working on silk looms in that state.179 For example, a worker with a community health organization in Varanasi told Human Rights Watch that silk workers report breathing problems and pain in their shoulders and upper backs.180
Employer Abuse in Silk Weaving
88 For more information about girls and work in India, see Neera Burra," Cultural Stereotypes and Household Behavior: Girl Child Labour in India," Economic and Political Weekly, February 3-10, 2001, reprinted at http://hdrc.undp.org.in/childrenandpoverty/ref/cultural.htm (retrieved July 12, 2002); and Neera Burra, Born to Work: Child Labour in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 204-22 (noting that girls' work is often invisible, low wage, unskilled, and includes much domestic labor that is often not considered work; that some work is sex-typed; and that parents often undervalue girls and thus do not value educating them.
91 P. Kattaraman did not know his exact age, but his teachers thought that he was fourteen or younger. He told Human Rights Watch that he had been at the residential school for two years and that he worked for five or six years before that. Human Rights Watch interview, Magadi, Karnataka, March 27, 2002.
104 MAYA, Which Silk Route This?, p. 30 (citing results of medical exams performed in early 2000 on two hundred children ages six to fourteen working in the silk industry in Bangalore Rural District); Human Rights Watch interview with activist, Ramanagaram, Karnataka, March 29, 2002; E-mail communication to Human Rights Watch from MAYA, September 6, 2002.
107 The NGO MAYA calculated that over the course of a ten to twelve hour day, a cocoon cook, in the process of transferring cooked cocoons to the reeling basin, walks about four kilometers carrying a ladle of hot cocoons weighing about 700 grams (1.54 pounds). MAYA, Which Silk Route This?, p. 32.
109 MAYA, Which Silk Route This?, pp. 29-33. Girls reportedly suffer reproductive disorders, including painful and irregular menstrual periods. Ibid.; Human Rights Watch, The Small Hands of Slavery, p. 81, fn. 165.
123 See National Labour Commission, Ministry of Labour, Government of India, Report of the Second National Commission on Labour, 2002, pp. 1013, 1018. For more information about child labor in agriculture generally, see Human Rights Watch, The Small Hands of Slavery, pp. 95-101; and Human Rights Watch, Backgrounder: Child Labor in Agriculture, June 2002, http://hrw.org/backgrounder/crp/back0610.htm.
124 See, e.g., Human Rights Watch, Backgrounder: Child Labor in Agriculture; Human Rights Watch, Tainted Harvest: Child Labor and Obstacles to Organizing on Ecuador's Banana Plantations (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2002), http://hrw.org/press/2002/04/ecuador0425.htm; Human Rights Watch, "Underage and Unprotected: Child Labor in Egypt's Cotton Fields," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 13, no. 1(e), January 2001, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/egypt/; Human Rights Watch, Fingers to the Bone: United States Failure to Protect Child Farmworkers (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2000), http://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/frmwrkr/.
130 Remesh, Organisational Structure, Labour Relations and Employment in Kancheepuram Silk Weaving, p. 24. This has also been found to be the case in Arni region, a silk weaving area about sixty kilometers from Kanchipuram. K. Nagaraj, S. Janakarajan, D. Jayaraj, Barbara Harris White, "Socio-Economic Factors Underlying the Growth of Silk Weaving in the Arni Region: A Preliminary Study," Madras Institute of Development Studies and Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford, March 1996 (finding that while both girls and boys enter the industry as assistants, girls are less likely to graduate from being an assistant to a waged weaver and then to a self-employed weaver).
136 Human Rights Watch interview with twelve-year-old boy, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, March 13, 2002. The loom owner told us the boy was his nephew, a family relationship that does not fall under the family exemption to the 1986 Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act. Human Rights Watch interview with loom owner, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, March 13, 2002.
167 According to Remesh, "[t]he attached weaver is bound to work only for the Maligai [trader] and breach of this leads to break of contract and punitive actions such as demand for repayment of old debts if any with cumulative interest. . . . [S]ince Malligais and cooperatives have close nexus the defaulter finds it difficult to get any fresh contract and hence has to leave the industry." Of the 166 weavers Remesh surveyed in 2000, 150 were in debt. Most used the advances for: "(a) setting up of looms and consolidation of pre-requisites for production; (b) meeting contingency expenses; and (c) meeting consumption expenses, especially during lean seasons." However, Remesh also notes that the practice of advances for weavers had eroded considerably. Remesh, Organisational Structure, Labour Relations and Employment in Kancheepuram Silk Weaving, pp. 12-13, 35-36, 38.
170 According to Remesh's study, 48.2 percent of weavers surveyed had this kind of relationship, known as "attached weaving" or the "thaniyar system," with a trader. Most attached weavers were weaving out of their own homes and owned their own looms. However, the survey found about ten workshops in and around Kanchipuram, each with about ten to one hundred looms, in which attached weavers work together on looms rented from the trading firms. "The tenant weavers normally engage their family labour (including women and children) as helpers. The use of hired assistants is also resorted in cases of non-availability of own-labour." Remesh, Organisational Structure, Labour Relations and Employment in Kancheepuram Silk Weaving, pp. 10-12, 14-15, 22-23.
179 Researchers in Uttar Pradesh found that: "Due to long hours of working on pit-looms more frequently, inside damp and ill-ventilated rooms, aching-joints rheumatic diseases, digestive/respiratory disorders, and impairment of eyesight have assumed the proportion of occupational diseases among weavers, depending on the length of exposure. There is also a high incidence of TB reported." B.N. Juyal and M.K. Jha, "Executive Summary," Child Labour Involvement in Sericulture, para. 2.3.15. See also, Human Rights Watch, The Small Hands of Slavery, p. 87.