Leading international non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International, India Committee of the Netherlands, the FNV trade union and Novib have brought to Unilever's attention that the hybrid cotton seeds production business in India, handled by its local arm, Hindustan Lever, allegedly uses child labour in some farms.
Unilever has traditionally objected to the use of child labour as a matter of corporate policy.
The hybrid cotton seeds business in India is carried out through Paras Extra Growth Seeds, in which Hindustan Lever has a minority stake but no management control.
It may be recalled that as part of the strategy adopted by Hindustan Lever last year to exit non-core areas, the business was transferred to Paras Extra Growth Seeds.
The majority holding of 74 per cent was acquired by Emergent Genetics, a foreign firm, and a US-based private equity fund. Paras procures cotton seeds from middlemen, who in turn buy the seeds from farmers.
A Hindustan Lever spokesperson said the company could not be held responsible for third-party sourcing as its relationship with Paras was only that of a buyer and a seller.
According to the NGOs' reports, a sample survey of 12 seed farms revealed that, on average, about nine children were employed for the cultivation of cotton seeds on one acre of land.
Hindustan Lever did not dispute the contents of the report, but said the study was not based on any comprehensive study of farm practices on the employment of child labour.
The spokesperson said the company always laid down in its contracts that suppliers must not use child labour. It also made sure that its suppliers complied with these agreements by conducting regular checks through visits and inquiries and by seeking confirmation of compliance with the agreements.
"You will appreciate that it is impractical, if not impossible, for a business organisation to assume the policing or regulatory role for which legislation have clearly provided an appropriate machinery and entrusted responsibility to government officials, particularly when the activity is spread over multiple locations and hundreds of acres of land," the spokesperson added.
"We do not believe that given the economic conditions in India, one should object to children supporting parents on their farms," he added.