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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 June 2006, 08:08 GMT 09:08 UK
Child labour - India's 'cheap commodity'

By Navdip Dhariwal
BBC News, Tamil Nadu

Campaigners say that many children work in appalling conditions

Farm workers toil long hours in the fields in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu for little reward in the intense heat.

But it is often their only means of survival.

Cheap labour is one commodity India has in abundance.

Hidden from public view though, is another workforce.

In an isolated spot, miles from the nearest town, is a thriving matchstick industry.

Here inside makeshift straw huts - and in the small dwellings that neighbour them - we found some of India's youngest workers.

Rows of exhausted young girls - up to 20 and as young as five are working alongside their mothers.

For 16 hours a day their tiny blistered fingers skilfully turn out matches for export.

Ordered to leave

The toxic smell of sulphur is overwhelming in the windowless room.

218m aged 5-17 in work
126m in hazardous work
Almost 50m work in Africa
122m work in Asia
70% of workers in agriculture
Estimated cost of ending child labour: $760m over 20 years
Source: International Labour Organisation

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Twelve-year-old Sindhu dips the tips of the sticks into hot sulphur.

"I start work early but don't finish until late into the night. I get paid less than two dollars a week."

Our presence was clearly not welcome. As we were speaking to the girls the owner came in and ordered us to leave.

Within walking distance are other factories. But again, when we arrived, the youngest workers were quickly led away.

While the factory owner denied he was employing underage workers, almost every single household in this part of Tamil Nadu has one or more children working long hours in appalling conditions.

Campaigners say over 11 million children are forced to work in India.

Lighting a fire for a rare family meal, Sarojama gathers her five grandchildren around her.


She has barely been able to feed them, so she was forced to borrow money from a local factory owner.

Child worker in Indian match factory
Campaigners say over 11 million children work in India

Unable to pay back the loan she sent her young grand-daughter to work. Parimeeta was taken out of school and has been working 12 hour days for two years.

The debt is less than $20.

Campaigners fear that as India's economy continues to boom, children are increasingly being exploited to meet the country's hunger for global success.

In a recent raid in the capital Delhi, police rescued a large number of boys from local sweatshops.

Agents had lured them from India's poorest regions, promising the children that they would be taken care of and paid well.

They were found hidden on the top floors of garment factories - held captive in filthy cramped rooms under lock and key.

They painstakingly spent hours applying crystals to garments. Many of the clothes end up being sold in shops in the UK.


These are places the authorities say are difficult to close down.

But Swami Agnivesh of the Bonded Liberation Front says that hundreds of children are kept hidden from public view in the buildings of crammed alleyways.

"They are kept in the most appalling conditions and not enough is being done to help them," he said.

India has laws in place to protect children and bans the use of young workers, but they remain pretty ineffective.

The United Nations Children's' Fund says that the sheer volume of children engaged in work is living proof of the world's failure to protect them.

That is the reason why the agency's work is focused on building a protective environment which safeguards children from exploitation and abuse.

In Tamil Nadu local charities have helped pay off families' debts so that at least some children can be released from the matchstick factories.

Finally freed from the shackles of work, they now have some hope of reliving their childhood.

Bu it is often a dream that is short-lived.

Charity workers admit most of the children are likely to find themselves forced back into a life of bondage.

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