Child labour in a state owned biscuit factory

Muslim Town in the south of India, millions of mobs between rice fields, crossroads of trade silver, the core of global software industry and a spectacle of light in the Golconda Fort: this is Hyderabad. For a western guy, this is not a well-known cosmopolitan, but the area contains 7.7 million residents (7 times Amsterdam). In other words: this city is grotesque.

Some years ago I talked with activist K. Satyanarayana Rao of the M. Venkatarangaiya Foundation, better known as MV Foundation. According to their website:

“Based on the non-negotiable principle that ‘no child works and every child attends full time formal school as a matter of right’, MVF has been working towards abolition of child labour in all its forms and mainstreaming them into formal schools, for over a decade now. From its humble beginning in three villages in 1991, it has now spread its philosophy far and wide.”

Rao talks about child labour and the fact that many children are held behind fenced industries making it difficult to provide evidence. No activist ever succeeded to enter these guarded wall with machine guns, let alone to smuggle evidence. I asked Mr. Rao whether they had ever tried it with a white man. He looks at me quizzically. “No, of course not. To much danger.” But I am stubborn. After a while we exchange ideas. He talks about Jaya Biscuit Industries, owned by the state.

The adventure goes like this: on a sunny day I am visiting Jaya Biscuit Industries with Rao. The local printer made me 50 glossy business cards, printing:

Hans Sluijter
Director of Importing/Exporting
Dutch Biscuits Worldwide Limited

I made up a website and contact details. Rao acts as my local guide and translator. The factory is spacious with, in my memory, watchtowers and two guards at the gate, one with a machine gun. They walked to us aggressively, but when I handed over my business card we should wait. With a bakelite telephone he made a phone call and after a few minutes a Jurassic Park-like gate opened. One of the guards gave him my business card and one second later he walked towards us with a smile on his face and an outstretched hand: he is Mr. P. Satya Narayana, General Manager. When the Jurassic gate closed behind us, we are on point of no return.

In the ‘oval office’ we talked about my personal life, little things and my business in India. In the meanwhile we were served tea with biscuits by a young kid of around 8. At a certain point he asked in which hotel I stayed. I said: “Golkanda Hotel”. And he invited himself to have dinner with me later this evening at Golkonda Hotel. He excused himself for a moment, of coursing checking me on Golkonda’s guest list. When he came back with a smile, we knew we past the exams. A risky moment: I asked for a guided tour. And…he agreed.

First we came in a room were they make cookie batter. I tasted it, acting like a connoisseur and making intelligent comments. There were no kids, only some youngsters. After this we came in a hall in the size of a single gymnasium. I saw what I was looking for but I took not further attention to it. On the left side and the length of the hall, stands a biscuit machine. I immediately ran towards it, pretending to be surprised about the technology. I asked Satya Narayana if I could make some photos and I took my camera. The digital age had not yet made its appearance and I took with me a camera with one button. Carrying an SLR-camera would draw attention of being undercover as a journalist. I made several picture from the automatic assembly line. Coming at the end, I make a turn of 180 degrees facing the kids. I also made two pictures. I knew in advance that I would not make sharp pictures with a pocket camera, but the initial goal was to come back with some kind of physical evidence within a reasonable safe undercover act. I estimate the children to be five to twelve years old. After an hour we went outside. With a machine gun in the corner of my eye, I shaked the hand of Satya Narayana. He reminded me to our meeting in my hotel this evening. The Jurassic gate closed, sealing the children. Once in my hotel I checked out and went to another one.

I gave the negatives of the photo’s to the MV Foundation but until this day I am not aware about what they have done with it.

My base camp was Kalkaji, New Delhi. I worked at the Global March Against Child Labour. The Global March was run by SACCS, South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude. Nowadays, it is known as BBA, Bachpan Bachao Andolan. It is here, that a philosophical miracle happened to me. I told my victory to some people until I stumbled on a question. Someone asked me:
‘Did you asked yourself the right questions?’
I did not know what that question meant. So silence was necessary to shape an answer. I could only come up with:
‘What do you mean?’
‘Who is serving this undercover operation? Did you asked the kids or the parents of the kids if they wanted to be rescued?’
There was no prior research and I sailed blindly on the MV Foundation. I even did not asked questions about it. I was out for excitement, adventure and a story. Was I selfish, seeking for glory, a showpiece or a gimmie? Perhaps the families of the children needed the income to come out of poverty in which I pushed them even further. To save you a long story, it’s okay to free kids but not just like headless chickens in a vacuum. Ethics should go hand in hand with good intentions. Good intention are not always the best choice. Perhaps there had been better options with these photographs and with greater impact. Who knows.

According to ABOLITION OF CHILD LABOUR IN INDIA, Strategies for the Eleventh Five Year Plan, submitted by National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) to Planning Commission of India the work of a Social Mobiliser is tough and complex:

The eradication of child labour cannot be done by the labour department alone, as it is so under-staffed. Labour department needs to have a cadre of youth volunteers who can be trained as ‘Social Mobilisers’ who will be responsible for withdrawing children from work as well as monitoring school dropouts and children with irregularity of attendance. It is understood that if such children are not tracked they would join the labour force as child labour.

There’s a wide range of tasks waiting for Social Mobilisers:

  • Identify and establish contact with child labourers
  • Motivate parents not to send their children to work but to school
  • Persuade employers to release child labourers
  • Organize mobilization programmes at the local levels by organizing street theatre, public meetings and rallies, house-to-house surveys to build up a social norm and a consensus that children must not work.
  • Assist local community groups to organize child rights protection committees which can be the watchdogs of various government departments dealing with child labour eradication.
  • Liaise with local officials in the education, labour, police and social welfare departments and bring problems and identify solutions.
  • Assist locally elected bodies to be vigilant about children’s rights and to monitor and review the prevalence of child labour in their areas.
  • Strengthen school education committees (SEC) so that school functioning improves and drop-outs (potential child labourers) are reduced.
  • Bring rescued children to transitional educational centres from where they can be mainstreamed into the formal school system.
  • Follow up of the regularity of attendance of all school going children and establish processes of reviewing through the gram panchayats.

This endorses the statement of BBA: freeing children is not just an executive task and one should first identify all stakeholders and their interests before taking action.

On the other hand, there is no excuse for goverments for such practices. A study called Child Labour in China’s Informalized Urban Industrial Sector investigated the manufacturing sector in Shenzhen, China.

Of the 37 factories, 20 of them (54 per cent) had at least one child worker (…) and child workers are frequently discovered in state factories, large private factories, and even in supply factories for Western brand companies.

Child Labour and Human Rights, A Prospective, Dr. Nanjunda D.C., ISBN 81-7835-645-7 state:

Most governments deny the existence of the problem, and some of the actually sustain the practice by hiring child labourers in state-owned enterprises. India is and “exemplary” case that demonstrate all of these problems.

Sans in Wheels ratifies this with more detail.

In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh alone, 247,800 children work in cottonseed production and around 450,000 in all of India, most of them for Indian-owned companies.

Cover album The Wall, Pink Floyd

There are many walls, for example the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the Bangladesh–India border, the Israeli Security Wall and the Mexico–United States barrier. There are even walls inside peoples heads. I do not know how many walls goverments have build worldwide around working children, like Jaya Biscuit Industries. Could these goverments have walls inside their heads? Maybe the cover of the album ‘The Wall’ of Pink Floyd is expressing the situation of these kids in the best thinkable way. In that case, each liberation is justified and social workers, journalists, activists and NGOs are not just looking for a gimmie.


Portret 2

AUTHOR: H.R.J. Sluijter MA
E-MAIL: info [at]

One thought on “Child labour in a state owned biscuit factory

  1. Bhuwan Ribhu zegt:

    Dear Mr. Sluijter,
    Please accept my heartiest congratulations on a well written article. Also, thank you for raising the most asked philosophical question –

    “Who is serving this undercover operation? Did you asked the kids or the parents of the kids if they wanted to be rescued?”

    This is perhaps also not the right question to ask. A child working in a situation such as the biscuit factory, for less than minimum wages, is a victim of trafficking and one or several of the following crimes including wrongful confinement, Kidnapping through enticement, abduction through deceit, unlawful compulsory labour, amongst many others including physical and sexual assault.

    I am making the assumption that children are working for less than minimum wages as noone employs a child in a factory if they pay minimum wages, and thus is in a situation of forced/ compulsory labour as well.

    With all due respect to MV Foundation and their sustained efforts for elimination of child labour, I am sure, the photos and this research by you would have resulted in some action, even if it is a complaint.

    One of the biggest problems faced by child rights activists in India has been the lack of action by law enforcement agencies on such a complaint. To give an example, when domestic child labour was prohibited in India in Oct. 2006, in the first yr., the Govt. did 227,727 inspections of premises employing child labour, found 1680 violations, and prosecuted 800 odd employers.

    Similarly, in the state of Punjab, not even one prosecution was launched for trafficking child labour (in strict criminal statutes), between 2006- 2010.

    BBA approached the High Court of Delhi demanding comprehensive legal action against employers in 2005 understanding that the legal deterrent is the only way forward to protect children and eliminate child labour. Through various High Court directions, BBA has been able to:

    1. Ensure prosecutions under non bailable section in all cases of child labour rescue. This will result in employer going to jail as a certainty and create a legal deterrent.

    2. Ensure a fine of 20,000 Rs. is levied on the employer, immediately to provide economic compensation and rehabilitation to the child.

    3. Ensure a process of safe recovery and reunification, along with Govt. assistance to families to prevent re- trafficking.

    More than 500 employers/ traffickers have ended up in prison in 2011, more than 10 million Rs. has been recovered from employers as fines, something that was unthinkable just 3 years ago.

    In Punjab, after BBA’s intervention in 2010, 1900 odd children have been rescued, fines recovered, prosecutions launched in all 1900 odd cases (as opposed to none between 2006 – 2010, 5 yrs.)

    Just yesterday, the High Court has once again directed the Govt. to Seal the premises where child labourers are found till such time that they give fines and all due back wages to the child. Also, the Govt. is making a new law to regulate placement agencies to prevent trafficking of girls.

    Just a couple of weeks ago the Union minister had announced that there will be a total ban on child labour in India through a “Child Labour Abolition Act” in the Child Labour Free Campaign of BBA.

    The point is that it is possible to eliminate child labour comprehensively if all concerned agencies undertake their respective roles and responsibilities, if laws are properly enforced, if civil society works collectively to protect our children.

    The philosophical question is – are we ready to face this responsibility, this challenge ?

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