Our impact, Their voices

Sustainable cotton farming brings better lives for farmers and their families

ILO is working with global fashion giant Inditex to reduce the vulnerability of cotton-farming families in India so that children can experience their childhood without work and the families are able to support themselves.

Feature | India | 02 August 2021
SIRIPURAM, India (ILO news) – Barla Giribabu owns a piece of land in the south of India where he has grown cotton for the past two decades. Like most farmers in India, his landholding is small.

On top of the limited land size, volatilities in the costs of farming cotton from the unpredictable prices of inputs like fertilizer, and the ever-present threat of crop failure, have kept families like Mr Garibabu’s in a perpetual debt trap.

“With only two acres of farming land, I work off-farm as a casual labourer in the slack season,” says Mr Garibabu, 45. “There are numerous families like mine, where men, women and children in the family are forced to find work.”

According to the latest Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, the agriculture sector accounts for 70 per cent of children in child labour. India is the world’s largest cotton producer and the second largest cotton exporting country after China. It has the largest area under cotton cultivation in the world, about 11 million hectares. Cotton sustains the livelihood of an estimated 5.8 million farmers, with another 40-50 million people engaged in related activities such as cotton processing and trade.

“Families, especially women and children, are often forced to engage in exploitative forms of work for survival,” says G Raja Shekar, Chief Operating Officer of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), a civil society organization. “We have also witnessed farmer suicides triggered by the mounting debt burden in cotton growing areas.”

Farmer toils at the cotton field in Telangana © ILO
Urgent efforts were needed to ensure the viability of small producers, workers and other cotton growing communities to avoid the desperate vulnerability that leads to farmers taking their own lives and children working to support their families.

To help meet this challenge, in 2018, the International Labour Organization (ILO) launched the ‘Promoting fundamental principles and rights at work in the cotton supply chain’ initiative supported by Inditex. The global fashion group places high priority on the protection of labour rights in the production of raw materials as well as on putting workers at the centre of these efforts.

To build links with the community, the project team held consultations with civil society organizations (CSOs) and Farmers Producer’s Organizations (FPOs), offering capacity-building programmes. The consultations gave the farmers an opportunity to share the challenges they face, and generated discussion about issues that are important to them beyond child labour and suicides, such as the need to promote the broader labour rights agenda.

FPO members sharing learnings from State level consultations at a village meeting. © ILO
After the consultations, the FPOs proved an effective platform for farmers, labourers and buyers to discuss working conditions and issues they face.

Krishna, a member of the Adarsh FPO, highlighted steps the group is taking to strengthen its operations: “We are promoting organic cotton through sustainable farming practices, such as soil fertility management and pest management, and training members on the benefits of respecting labour standards.”

The CSOs helped FPOs to identify buyers such as the Malkha Group, Abihara Group and the Kora Group, who support labour and environmental standards. Organic cotton production has provided an assured premium of 15-20 per cent to farmers over market prices in this region. FPOs have further invested in skill-development and reduced the costs of cultivation by supplying productivity-enhancing machinery. In this case, it has given farmers a minimum 30 per cent improvement in their annual family income of around INR 30,000-40,000.

“Workers, including women workers, are being paid better wages and thus helping them to keep their children in schools,” said G V Ramanjaneyulu, Executive Director of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.

Farmers adopting organic methods of pest management in Telangana. © ILO
Mylaram Padma, a woman member of the Adarsh FPO, agrees: “We are beginning to talk about issues that go beyond fair wages. We are now deliberating on the importance of creating safer places for women, and most importantly, fair practices such as preventing the involvement of children at work.”

The initial orientation on labour rights and entitlements has informed and empowered farmers to look at the importance of collectives, of bargaining and negotiating, and how to access support services related to credit, insurance and subsidies for farmers and social security cards for workers.

Despite the restrictions on physical movements during the pandemic, during the last few months farmers have reached out to the local labour and agriculture departments asking for social security cards to be issued to cotton farmers and labourers.

“Combining a social security agenda, fundamental principles and rights at work and improved livelihoods can go a long way to lift cotton farmers out of the high levels of indebtedness, and the associated tragedies like farmer suicides and child labour,” said Ranjit Prakash, National Project Coordinator for the project.

For further information please contact:

Ranjit Prakash
National Project Coordinator
Promoting fundamental principles and rights at work in the cotton supply chain