Underpaid workers and child labour drive small-scale units in Delhi that process Californian almonds.

Seven-year-old Gita (name changed) jumps on a huge mound of almond nuts. At first sight, you would think that she was just playing a game like any little girl her age. However, a closer look tells you Gita's acrobatics are no child's play. She is working to earn a living.

Like dozens of other children, Gita is a worker in one of the thriving almond-shelling units in the nation's capital, Delhi. Her nimble feet serve as a machine to break open the almonds that have been imported from California.

Crammed into dust-filled rooms, illegal child labour is used to service a million-dollar industry. The children sit on the floor silently shelling sack-loads of almonds with their deft fingers, or jump on mounds of almonds.

Almond shelling is big business in the Karawal Nagar colony in north-east Delhi. About 45 to 50 almond breaking and packaging units work round the year in the area, servicing the wholesale market for dry fruits and spices located at Khari Bhaowli in the walled city. These human factories — quite literally — do the job of an entire automated plant in the United States, manually removing and separating the hulls, shells, and kernels of the almonds to prepare them for the market.

Top export

Almonds are the leading U.S. agricultural export item to India, which sources approximately 95 per cent of its almonds from the U.S. From a small beginning in the 1970s, India now imports over $100 million worth of Californian almonds.

While the average price of almonds ranges from Rs.360-400 per kg, children working in these units are paid a paltry sum of Rs.2 for every kilo shelled.

Vinay (name changed) migrated to Delhi and started work at the factory at the age of 11. Ten years later, he is a loader at one of the godowns at Karawal Nagar. He receives no remuneration for his work as a loader. Instead of wages, he gets two sacks of almonds, which he, along with five other members of his family, shell at the rate of Rs.60 per sack. For the family of six this means a day's wage of Rs.20 per person.

While almond shelling is a round-the-year business, the supply and demand peaks between Diwali and Christmas (October to December). The working hours during this period extend between 12-15 hours per day. The entire process from start to finish is divided amongst several workers. Children are specifically recruited to break the unshelled almonds by stamping on them. Half-broken shells are carefully sifted to remove and separate the almond from the waste. At this stage, adults, mainly women, who help grade and pack the shelled almonds in different categories, join the children.

An average sack of unshelled almonds weighs about 22 kg and yields about 16-17 kg of almond produce. The husk or shells that make up the rest is usually sold by owners as cooking fuel to workers for Rs.30-35 per sack.

Lately some of the units have introduced mechanised extraction during the peak season. This yields approximately 20 sacks in an hour and with more than one machine working, 350-400 sacks in a day are processed during peak season as compared to around 80-100 in the lean season.

In December 2009, at the peak of winter, about 3,000 workers of Karawal Nagar under the banner of the Badam Mazdoor Union went on a strike. Their demands included higher wages, regularisation of work, and implementation of labour laws in the almond industry. The struggle resulted in increase of wages from Rs.45 to Rs.60 per day, still far below the basic minimum wage for unskilled labour in Delhi, presently fixed at Rs.247 per day.

No regulations

Indeed, at present there is no regulation of the industry. Almond shelling falls within an ambiguously defined category of “household production,” which actually excludes these units from the purview of existing labour laws. According to the Labour Department of Delhi, these units do not come under the “organised sector,” defined as units “employing 10 or more workers with power” or “20 or more workers without power.”

By this reasoning (and there seems to be little indication of any significant rethinking on this particular issue) large sections of the burgeoning informal sector in India that employ nearly 94 per cent of the total work force, fall outside the jurisdiction of labour regulations.

With globalisation and the re-organisation of production across several national boundaries, the informalisation of the labour force has become increasingly common in both developed and developing countries.

According to a report submitted by the National Commission on Unorganised Workers (2008), 77 per cent of India's working population earn less than Rs.20 per day. In her recent study ‘Labor Rights and Multinational Production (2011),' Layna Mosley establishes the important linkages between workers' rights and the different systems of global production in place today. She points out that outsourcing of production to smaller firms located in far-off countries allows multinationals to take advantage of lower unit costs without necessarily engaging in the risks associated with direct ownership of facilities.

The plight of the illegal child labourers and the grossly underpaid adult workers of Karawal Nagar in Delhi is just one example of the growing conglomeration of informal and unaccounted manufacturing that is typical of most metros. Within Delhi itself, there are many such specialised centres where work is undertaken at a piece-rate system of payment. Bigger production houses and well-known multinationals also do this.

Last recourse

Most people enter the informal economy not by choice but as a last recourse at a livelihood that will keep hunger at bay. Most informal sector workers are landless migrants who have left their villages due to drought, floods and lack of work.

Sheer indifference to the concerns of the unorganised sector contributes to further marginalisation of the poor. The resistance of the Labour Department to bringing informal businesses within the ambit of labour laws, the refusal of the local police to lodge complaints against errant factory owners, and the total apathy to these issues by elected locality representatives leads to the shameful abuse of basic human rights. The story of almond workers in the heart of the capital reflects the prevailing official apathy towards the informal sector and highlights the need for urgent labour regulations in this sector.

(The author teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.)

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