India holds the distinction of being one of the world’s largest sugar producers and ranks second in global sugar exports, earning $4 billion every year from sugar alone. But a bitter truth lurks at the bottom of the supply chain. Oxfam reports that almost 200,000 children under 14 work in the hazardous Indian sugar cane industry. Children as young as six are harvesting sugar cane in Maharashtra and, by age 11, are working full time.
Given that millions of sugarcane workers are tricked into debt and forced to work, trafficking risks are high for adults and even more so for children.
Millions of unprotected child workers in Indian sugar industry
Haziq Qadri at Vice reports,
According to Dhananjay Tingal, the executive director of child rights movement, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, his team found children working in sugarcane fields in previous studies. “In Maharashtra, children are being trafficked from Rajasthan and other parts of India to work in the sugarcane fields,” Tingal said.
The data on child workers in India varies widely. According to UNICEF, there are over 10.2 million children between the ages of 5-14 working in India. Local child rights organisations put the number of child workers closer to 60 million.
Trafficked teens tricked, beaten to work
A 13-year-old and his friends were duped by a labor contractor promising them around $61 a month and new phones to work part-time in their village. However, he ended up taking them hundreds of miles away from home, handing them over to another contractor in a village in Maharashtra.
Working conditions in the fields are harsh without access to shade in extreme heat, sleeping accommodations, enough food to eat, clean water, toilets, or electricity. For these teens, and many other children, abuse awaits if they attempt to leave.
“We were made to work in the sugarcane fields from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m.,” the teen told VICE News. They were never paid and were beaten when they asked to return home.
No government support
Tangade is adamant that, “The government should constitute a welfare board for the financial security and improvement of the standard of living of sugarcane workers rescued from bonded [labour].”
Although some children are rescued from sugar cane trafficking, most are not. Like the U.S. agricultural sector, few to no government protections exist for children working in sugar even though India could not rake in as much profit as it does were it not for their child laborers.
For the time being, non-profits are doing what they can to rescue and rehabilitate children but their resources and influence are limited without government support.