A United States-based non-government rights group has charged that 'child slaves' in India's silk industry suffer burns, beatings and 12-hour workdays.
"The Indian government is failing to protect the rights of hundreds of thousands of children who toil as virtual slaves in the industry," Human Rights Watch said in a new report.
Bound to their employers in exchange for a loan to their families, these children are unable to leave while in debt and earn too little to be able to repay the debt. Thus, they may never be free, the report said, adding that a majority of them were Dalits.
"The Indian government says there are no bonded children, but they're everywhere. They are easy to find," said Zama Coursen-Neff, counsel to Human Rights Watch children's rights division.
Top government officials interviewed by the group denied that children are bonded or work in factories and said they have shifted their focus to raising public awareness about child labour, instead of trying to prosecute employers or organisations.
The group interviewed children, employers, government officials and members of non-government organisations in three states that form the core of India's sari and silk industries --- Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
"At every stage of the silk industry, bonded children as young as five-years work 12 or more hours a day, six and a half or seven days a week. Children making silk thread dip their hands in boiling water that burns and blisters them," the HRW report said.
"The government has taken a number of steps in the right direction since our first investigation [in 1996]. The National Human Rights Commission's involvement is especially encouraging," Coursen-Neff said. "Most government efforts, however, never reach beyond high-profile industries like carpets and beedi-cigarettes."
Human Rights Watch also urged the government to recognise and address the connection between caste and bondage. "Caste is one of the foundations of the bonded labour system," Coursen-Neff said, alleging, "Dalits are denied access to land, forced to work in degrading conditions, and expected to perform free labour."
The group called on international donors to pressure state governments in India to enforce the child and bonded labour laws. "Funding schools is important, but international donors should do more," said Coursen-Neff.
"In Karnataka," India's primary producer of silk thread, "production still depends on bonded children," the rights group alleged.
"In Uttar Pradesh, a lot of attention has been paid to child labour in the carpet industry, not silk, while in Tamil Nadu, which successfully identified more bonded labourers than any other state, most state initiatives have focused on children working in match and fireworks manufacture," the report said.