Sunday, June 22, 2008

corporate responsibility and dalits:a campaigning perspective


Gerard Oonk, Director, India Committee of the Netherlands

The India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) is an independent NGO campaigning on human rights issues in India in a global context. For the last ten years ICN has been working on corporate social responsibility (CSR),especially on child labour and labour rights, and since about six years on caste discrimination.ICN is an active member of the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), the European ‘Stop Child Labour’ campaign and the Dutch CSR Platform.

4.2. Although, previously aware of caste discrimination’s existence, this was not an integral part of ICN’s socio-economic analysis, and more specifically the analysis and action on the implementation of labour rights. Only
in the past few years has ICN looked more closely at the human and labour rights implications of caste, fully realising the enormous importance of caste discrimination for the (lack of) realisation of labour rights. Decent corporate behaviour should therefore also include an active and affirmative policy to counter caste discrimination in the workplace.

4.3. Footballs and Dalits: Let’s take two examples to illustrate the point. ICN has been working intensively on child labour in the Indian football industry, including in the Euro 2000 and World Cup Campaign9. The latter was a joint
campaign with the Global March Against Child Labour. Most football stitchers in India are very poor - almost half of them live below the poverty line - while at the same time more than 90% of the stitching households are Dalits. This is not a co-incidence as footballs used to be made from leather, an animal product, which only the Dalits could come in contact with. It is therefore difficult to distinguish between pure economic exploitation and subjugation based on caste , but undoubtedly both factors work in tandem for football stitchers. This keeps them at the bottom of the economic and social hierarchy.

4.4. A report published in 2000 notes that discrimination because of caste, including in school, might be a more important factor for young football stitchers to drop out of school and start work than the often cited financial reasons.For adult football stitchers it is very often difficult for them to organise themselves into groups , as they are economically exploited and separated from each other in the sub-contracting chain (they often work at home, selling the finished goods to intermediaries). Besides, their low caste status also puts them in a weak bargaining position.

4.5. 80.000 victims: There are many children, mainly girls, working in hybrid cotton seed cultivation in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh10. In 2004 they numbered more than 80.000 of which more than 12,000 working for multinationals like Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer. These children work long hours, do not go to school, are exposed to pesticides, and are often bonded to the employers because of debt . Those who are bonded do not usually live at home, but instead live in accommodations such as an employer’s cowshed, and therefore become extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Most of these children are Dalits while others belong to backward castes including Muslims.

4.6. ICN and other organizations have been working on this issue with an Indian NGO – the MV Foundation, which aims to get every working child regardless of caste into regular fulltime education. This organisation with more than ten years experience in this area has shown that not poverty but tradition, exclusion, discrimination, non-functioning public schools and the lack of a clear social norm against child labour continue the vicious circle of poverty and child labour. The organization aims to support all children, including Dalit children into regular

4.7. Corporate Responsibility: In February 2004 ICN published the report ‘Corporate Social Responsibility in India– Policy and practices of Dutch companies’. According to the companies surveyed no discrimination of Dalits was reported in the work place. In practice however, women get less pay for the same job; they often do not get a contract or qualified jobs; and are sexually harassed . It is well-know that Dalit women suffer the worst forms of discrimination. One of the recommendations in the report is that companies should stimulate participation of women and Dalits (including of course Dalit women) into higher qualified jobs by developing affirmative action plans. It was also recommended that companies engage with local NGOs to find ways to help stimulate education and training of women and Dalits.

4.8. Recently the instruments of corporate responsibility and accountability have been linked to situations of caste discrimination in employment, for example in the OECD Guidelines for companies and the ILO labour standards11. The recently published report on the ‘International Consultation on Caste-Based Discrimination12 bears testimony to this, just like the Ambedkar (Employment) Principles to be found in this
report. This is the beginning of what will undoubtedly become a range of efforts to firmly link the fight against caste discrimination to the existing human rights responsibilities and obligations of companies. In order to reach that goal, Dalit organizations, development and human rights NGO’s as well as national and global trade unions should join forces together.

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