Slave trade is alive and well in India's fireworks industry
This article appeared in the Sunday Herald on November 5 2000, under the title
We have contacted Mr Paul Baskar, and he confirms that child slavery in the Indian Manufacture of fireworks still goes on, and that some of these fireworks find there way into our High Street Shops.
Thousands of British families will today enjoy Guy Fawkes' Night unaware that the fireworks they are seeing could have been made by child slaves in India. Every year dozens of Indian children are killed and horribly injured in accidents when unstable chemical compounds explode, often because exhausted children get the mixtures wrong.
Even more suffer serious long-term health problems including blood poisoning and lung diseases from breathing in noxious chemicals in the dank workshops, and all lose any chance of getting the education that might help them scramble out of poverty. Almost certainly their own children in future years will work in the fireworks industry, just as their own parents once did.
India's fireworks industry is concentrated around the town of Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu, south India, an arid, drought-prone region with poor harvests and little alternative work. For the poor the choice is often a harsh one between the fireworks industry and starvation. Work begins in April, then through the summer the pressure builds up to frenetic levels as the Hindu festival of Diwali nears.
Diwali, the festival of light, celebrated just a few days ago across India, is an orgy of fireworks which brings in vast profits for the firework manufacturers. Campaigner Paul Baskar, who has spent two decades trying to raise awareness of the trade in India, said around 30 people this year are thought to have died in two separate accidents. He believes many more youngsters die or suffer injury in smaller-scale accidents which are not reported because the owners want keep them quiet.
Baskar told the Sunday Herald: "Children, and many women, are taken on in this industry because they are cheap and vulnerable, and less likely to complain or organise themselves. I think there is also an element of less fuss being made if a child dies in an accident. It's easier to brush it under the carpet than if a male adult breadwinner was killed. It's a cottage industry. Raw materials are passed on to sub-contractors in the village workshops, often through several tiers, which allows the big companies to distance themselves from working conditions. That makes for a complicated industry which is difficult to change."
A lot of people are making big money from this trade. Most of the fireworks are sold in India but large numbers are exported to countries abroad.
Baskar says the Millennium was welcomed across the globe with Sivakaski fireworks and many will be used this Guy Fawkes' Night. The USA and South Africa are the biggest export markets, but he says Sivakasi fireworks are also sold in the UK. The concentration of child labour in and around Sivakasi is one of the forms of modern slavery examined by American academic and slavery expert Kevin Bales in his study, Disposable People.
Bales argues that the world is complacent about slavery because people think it was abolished globally in the last century, but the academic believes it has both survived and changed. He estimates that India has more slaves than all other countries put together, as many as 20 million people, mostly bonded labourers working the land in backward states like Bihar.
The Sivakasi child slaves are typical of the new type of slavery he has studied. They are not legally owned, not shackled, and their masters are the same colour as them. But they become forced to work in terrible conditions for little or no pay after their parents have accepted a cash advance typically as small as 1000-5000 rupees (£15-£75).
The middlemen who recruit the child workers tell their parents that the advance is an incentive to stay at the same workshop for the season. But with interest on the debt, most become trapped in a treadmill. Nobody is quite sure how many children work in this chaotic, unregulated industry, but campaigners estimate that there are around 50,000 children in Sivakasi, which could make it the biggest concentration of child labour anywhere in the world.
They start as young as three staying at the work until they are around 15, although many girls will continue into adult life. The agents who recruit the children are responsible for getting them onto the buses taking them to the workshops, often picking them up from surrounding villages as early as 3am for a 12-hour day rolling and packing fireworks in dark sheds.
They rarely return home before 7pm. Transporting the youngsters has killed almost as many as the work itself. Campaigners say they have found up to 200 crammed into decrepit buses on India's dangerous roads, and crashes have had horrific consequences.
The work is described by Bales in his book. "The gunpowder mixture is corrosive, and over time it eats away the skin on a child's fingers. When this happens blisters form and the child can't work, as the chemicals burn quickly into the exposed flesh. "To wait for the blisters to heal takes five or six days. Instead, a hot coal or a lit cigarette is applied to the blister, bursting it and cauterising the wound. In time the children's fingertips become a mass of scar tissue. The powdered potassium chlorate, phosphorus, and zinc oxides also fill their lungs and lead to breathing problems and blood poisoning."
Baskar said most of the fatal accidents in the workshops are caused by mistakes being made by exhausted children working long hours. "They work overtime and become sleepy. The chemical mixtures can be dangerous - get it wrong and you can cause an explosion," he said. The issue has been in the public spotlight in India, although campaigners have been trying to reform the industry since the 1980s when Baskar was badly beaten by police at a demonstration and then jailed.
He says his Tamil Nadu-based Peace Trust is finally making an impact, with awareness of the firework slaves growing and the beginnings of consumer power starting to make industry bosses nervous. A campaign to educate Indian schoolchildren has this year seen more children choosing not to buy fireworks, and Baskar says more and more Indians are boycotting the shops that sell them.
The country's powerful press has campaigned on the issue and recent tactics by industry bosses show campaigning is having an effect, he believes. He said: "They have started trying to use the law to stop campaigners, and recently they went on the offensive among the politicians, setting up a fireworks manufacturers' association and hiring spin doctors."
But the millions of firecrackers and rockets which exploded on India's streets last month show the campaign to win the public's support has a long way to go - and so do some of the firework displays at British bonfire nights.
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