IKEA Foundation tackles child labor in India’s cotton communities; long-term holistic approach addresses social, cultural and economic influences

IKEA_Foundation_BLKTen-year-old Tejas was forced to leave school and work in the cotton fields in India alongside his parents to supplement the family’s US $1.67 a day earnings. "It’s very difficult to work in cotton fields," says Tejas. "My back ached every day. I feared that snakes or spiders would bite me. I wished I could study. My friends used to ask me to go to school with them. I had to work."

Tejas is not alone. India is home to the largest number of child laborers in the world, with nearly 13 million boys and girls, aged 5–14, relegated to kitchens, factories and fields. Glaring gaps in current laws do not protect children between the ages of 15 and 18 at all. Additionally, laws allow for children of all ages to work in seemingly non-hazardous occupations, such as agriculture and domestic work. So it is no surprise that six in 10 of India’s child laborers are engaged in agricultural activities.

Ikea-Foundation-2013-achievements-Facebook-postAccording to Jonathan Spampinato, Head of Strategic Planning and Communications for the IKEA Foundation, "We recognize that child labor is a highly complex issue that crosses social, cultural and economic boundaries. We must address attitudes and beliefs that perpetuate child labor practices and help build quality education and economic empowerment programs as sustainable alternatives to child labor."

The IKEA Foundation funds programs that focus on children’s four fundamental needs: a place to call home, a quality education, a healthy start in life and a sustainable family income. "Our work supporting children’s rights, and our efforts to move our world’s most marginalized citizens from field to classroom, align with our overall mission," explained Spampinato. "We aim to improve opportunities for children and youth in the world’s poorest communities by funding holistic, long-term programs that create substantial, lasting change."

The IKEA Foundation, along with nonprofit partner Save the Children, has spent the past five years tackling child labor in cotton communities across more than 1,800 villages in India. This program is built on a consortium model that involves panchayat (village) leaders, farmers, teachers, families and India state officials. To date, the program has reached more than 600,000 children. Approximately 150,000 children have been moved out of child labor and into classrooms. More than 10,000 migrant children have been moved back into their home communities. Further, nearly 2,000 teachers and 1,866 Anganwadi (health) workers have been trained in teaching practices, giving each village in the program a skilled community worker.

Just a few weeks ago, on June 12, 2014, World Day Against Child Labor, the Foundation announced that it is redoubling its efforts to tackle child labor. The organization, in conjunction with Save the Children and its partners Pratham and Breakthrough, unveiled a Є7 million program to protect another 790,000 children living in India cotton communities in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. These three states account for approximately 17% of India's total cotton output. An independent research study in 2008 revealed that Punjab has a large number of children working in the agriculture sector, with an estimated 25% in cotton picking. Rajasthan and Haryana are not far behind, with 23% and 16% of cotton picking labor being children.

Together, the IKEA Foundation and its nonprofit partners will continue to provide children with access to quality education, to improve teacher training and to develop local child-protection committees, school management committees and an inter-state migration network to identify migrant child workers and help them move back to their families and communities. Phase two of this program aims to tackle the deep-rooted issue of gender-based discrimination. This initiative will help protect girls from discrimination by establishing community groups that will champion girls’ rights and ensure girls have equal access to a quality education.

"We know there is no quick-fix solution to ending child labor, but long–term approaches can yield impressive results," Per Heggenes, CEO of the IKEA Foundation, explains. "The IKEA Foundation, with our partners, has been tackling this issue in India for nearly a decade. This new phase reinforces our long-term commitment and our desire to help millions more children out of child labor and back into the classrooms."