India: Freeing the Small Hands of the Silk Industry | World in Progress | DW | 01.01.1970
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World in Progress

India: Freeing the Small Hands of the Silk Industry

Silk production is big business in India. But there’s a dark side to this prosperous trade: child labor. Through UNICEF and a group of NGOs, though, these children are getting out of the factories and into school.

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These children have gone from slaving away in the silk factories to learning at residential school.

The southern Indian state of Karnataka accounts for a major part of the country's total silk production, or sericulture. In districts like Magadi, non-governmental organizations found up to 10,000 children working in the 1,000 silk factories there in 1998. But today, that figure totals fewer than a thousand child laborers.

The change was brought about by the Magadi Makkala Dhwani project, which was initiated with the help of UNICEF and the government of Karnataka. The group has since turned Magadi into a model for anti-child labor activists throughout the state.

The group of four local NGOs works towards rescuing and rehabilitating children working in silk factories. It also teaches the local community about the violation of children's rights and hopes this will reduce and ultimately prevent the use of child labor in the sericulture industry.

Tiny hands at work

The Magadi district is located just a two-hour drive away from India’s information technology hub, Bangalore. The bustling town is marked mainly by the noise. From behind the closed doors of small buildings and homes in the vicinity, a clatter emerges. It’s the somewhat muffled noise from looms and silk twisting machines.

A decade ago, Magadi was a prosperous town, abounding in silk twisting and weaving units. Nearly every moderately affluent family owned such a unit, producing much-sought-after silk yarn. Unit owners could barely keep up with the demand and employed thousands to work the machines.

Dossier Unicef: Junge in der Schule, Indien

Jagriti centre, a residential school at the silk belt of Magadi, India.

In the glow of apparent prosperity, what went unnoticed for the most part were tiny hands that pulled, twisted and separated the yarn, so the fiber could become strong enough for weaving into cloth -- tiny hands that often bled from cuts and sometimes suffered permanent damage at the unrelenting machines in front of them. They belonged to children as young as 6 or 8, who stood all day on tired feet, laboring away at the twisting machines.

These children worked in the midst of ear-splitting noise all day long, in many cases for up to 14 hours a day. Those were the average working conditions for the children of Magadi. No one in their town had heard of children’s rights, let alone of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Child labor as a fact of life

At the core of the problem was the fact that the entire society in Magadi appeared to have accepted child labor as a fact of life. The nimble finger theory -- which proposes that children with their supple little fingers are best suited for the job -- was widely prevalent. Parents, employers and the government: everyone seemed to believe it.

Dossier Unicef: Mutter und Tochter vor einem Brunnen in Indien

A girl and her mother from the village Hospalaya in Magadi, India.

"Moreover, unit owners had a lobby, money and influence to back them. The poor people didn’t have anything," says KS Saroja, the head of Chiguru, one of the four NGOs that are part of the program. "We NGOs were looked upon as outsiders. They ignored us in the beginning."

Saroja says, under those circumstances, employing children was very easy. But all that would change.

Bonded child labor

The issue of child labor in the sericulture industry in Magadi came to light in 1993-1994, when two NGOs working in the area found that there was a considerable number of boys and girls working in silk twisting units. They initiated a detailed study, conducting household surveys and looking at the factories and units in operation.

The study revealed that there were 8,000-10,000 children working in silk factories, all below 14 years of age. What’s more, most of the children had considerable sums of money dangling over their heads in the form of debt bondage.

Dossier Unicef: Junge in einer Schule in Indien

Jagriti centre, a residential school at the silk belt of Magadi, India.

This meant that their parents or guardians had accepted money as advance payment for work the children would do for an indefinite number of years or until the money could be paid back -- of which there was little hope. So, in Magadi, it was in fact a serious case of bonded child labor.

UNICEF project coordinator Suchitra Rao says things then suddenly gathered momentum. "Through the efforts of the Campaign against Child Labor, and facilitated by NGOs here, there was a public hearing organized," she explains. At the same time, UNICEF and the Human Rights Commission got into a working relationship and UNICEF approached the government of Karnataka’s labor department, which is responsible for the issue. "Initially, we found a lot of resistance because the Commissioner at the time was not very cooperative. It was only in 1998 that there was a big push to the whole process."

The next challenge

The NGOs then decided it was time for action and organized a massive raid in 1998, resulting in the release of more than 50 children. But, Rao points out that the freeing of children from labor also threw up another challenge.

"Then rose the question of what’s to be done with them? We can’t take them back home. The only option we had was to start a residential bridge program," she says. "That is how the four NGOs began residential programs in late 1999. Three for boys and one for girls, each with a capacity of 50. Ever since, there’s been no looking back."

Dossier Unicef: Kinder beim Spielen, Indien

Children from the village Hospalaya

Releasing the children and bringing them over to the residential homes was no easy task. But after initial confrontations, the NGOs decided that the only way to bring about a change in attitude was to work with the community.

Today, children still work in the sericulture industry in Magadi, but their numbers have come down appreciably. However, that decline is also largely due to the fact that the number of twisting units has fallen from about 1,000 to around 300. There has been a steady decline in business over the past decade because of the entry into the fray of china rayon, an imported fiber that’s thicker and cheaper than the more expensive silk thread.

One area where the NGOs and the government can claim particular success is in bringing released children back to school. Their efforts on this front are paying off and they are reporting a drastic fall in dropout rates and healthy enrollment levels in primary schools.

NGOs point out that it’s not just the number of children released that counts, but that there’s also been an enormous amount of work on the prevention side. They say that if this trend were to continue, in a few years’ time, the entire district could be rid of child labor.

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