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Tobacco Slaves In India

Candy-Flavored Cigs Find Favor With U.S. Teens

There was a time that some of the tobacco products sold in America were made by slaves.

60 Minutes II Correspondent Scott Pelley reported from India last fall, on the eve of the 21st century, on child slaves who make cigarettes for America.

Find out what has happened since the report first aired.


Click here to read the 1999 report and the August 2000 update:
  • November 1999 Report
  • August Update

  • November 1999 Report
    The cigarettes are known as "bidis." They are now hip among young people in the United States. Sometimes they are sweetened, with flavors such as chocolate, even bubble gum.

    They're also cheap, because they are hand rolled by kids who are tobacco slaves, children sold into bonded servitude. It is illegal to import goods into the United States that are made by bonded child labor. But until now, the U.S. Customs Service never had the evidence to make a case.

    Walk by many high schools, bus stops and downtown coffee shops in America these days, and you may notice young people smoking something that looks a lot like a marijuana joint. It is a bidi cigarette, tobacco wrapped in a leaf.

    Bidis are sold in convenience stores, tobacco shops and even health food stores - even though bidis pack three times the nicotine and tar of other cigarettes. In America, they are a fad created by children living by 18th century rules.

    India's tobacco road runs through the southern state of Tamil Nadu, a place where traditions stretch back to the beginning of recorded time, and where, in the world's largest democracy, children are still sold into bonded servitude.

    Every day, Shamshad rolls bidis for hours. She rolls 500 a day.

    Her story is typical. Six months ago she suffered seizures that threatened her life. The family desperately needed money for medicine so it struck a terrible bargain. It sold Shamshad's labor to a money lender in return for a loan.

    To save her life, the family sold her freedom. Now she works for the money lender. Most often children are bonded for many years, laboring anonymously in their own homes as childhood passes them by. Shamshad was traded for $25.

    "We've had children from age 5, 6, 7, 10, 12," said Special Commissioner P.W.C. Davidar, an Indian government official fighting bonded labor in Tamil Nadu. "It's all ages. As soon as you can, and you know how to roll bidis, you are an eligible candidate."

    Some Indians are selling their own children into this kind of work. "We've had cases where you have the parents having taken a debt, getting into bondage; and then the father dies. And the son takes on, he inherits the debt," Davidar said.

    The origins of bonded servitude date back centuries, to the times of Indian feudalism. But in the modern day, the practice has been banned. In 1976 the Indian government utlawed bonded servitude all across the country.

    But 60 Minutes II found in remote India, it is still a common practice. Some observers estimate that at least 10 million people are in bonded labor - many of them children.

    According to Gary Haugen, an American lawyer devoting himself to rescuing children from illegal bondage, the average price for a child is $25 to $50. The length of service can last from a few years to a lifetime.

    This fall Haugen went to a village in Tamil Nadu, deep in India's interior, to find out more about bonded children.

    Haugen once prosecuted crooked police for the U.S. Justice Department. He led the United Nation's investigation of war crimes in Rwanda. Now he's set up a nonprofit group of investigators he calls the International Justice Mission.

    In his briefcase, Haugen carries shackles that a colleague pried from the ankles of a boy who once ran away from a money lender.

    "Some evil in the world dies hard," Haugen said. "Even with slavery, it's alive and well in some places in the world. And this is one of the places where you can still find children sold into slavery; and (the) leg irons are a powerful reminder to me of that reality."

    After a journey halfway across India, Haugen, shadowed by Pelley, arrived in the heart of Tamil Nadu. In the village of Krishnagiri, Haugen went to the home of the Fareed family. Two of their daughters, Karmela and Sumitbonu, were bonded to the village money lender.

    According to Haugen, the girls had to work 10 hours a day, six days a week, producing a quota of 1,000 bidis each.

    "They've been working like this for two years. And the trick is, you can't get out of this debt unless you pay it off in a lump sum," Haugen said. "But they're never paid enough to be able to meet that. And they are charged enormous interest rates, sometimes 500 percent a year, 1,200 percent a year. And so this is bonded child labor."

    The girls, Haugen said, are producing bidi cigarettes specifically for the Mangalore Ganesh Bidi Works, which exports bidis to the United States and is one of the principal exporters to the country. It claims that it employs an adult work force and insists that bonded labor is never used in making its cigarettes. Using indentured children would make its products illegal in America.

    Ray Kelly, the commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service, ordered an investigation of Mangalore Ganesh. But his agents have been frustrated.

    When the Customs Service sends investigators into India, it must follow diplomatic protocol, warning the Indian government. The investigators are then taken to places where there is not bonded labor. "We need the cooperation of foreign governments, and we don't always get it," Kelly said.

    CBS News came to Krishinagiri unannounced. The Fareed family spoke freely to CBS News. One of the girls said that she had lost touch with her friends. "If I go tplay, only my family loses." She added: "I don't want to play. I don't think about it."

    The cigarettes she made were turned over to the money lender, who acted as a subcontractor providing finished bidis to the Mangalore Ganesh company. The money lender, who essentially owned the Fareed girls and gave their bidis to the Mangalore Ganesh company, was Mr. Shafee.

    Loans are usually paid off with three or four months of work, Shafee said. It is impossible that someone would have to work for two years, or 10 years, he said. The Fareed family finished paying off its loan to him, he added.

    A few minutes later, however, the father of the Fareed girls walked in with that day's payment of cigarettes.

    Those cigarettes are carried to warehouses, where they are bundled for sale throughout India and the world. At the Mangalore Ganesh Bidi Works, there were cigarettes wrapped with the U.S. Surgeon General's health warning, a requirement for export to the United States.

    Haugen's investigators go door to door, searching for bonded children. They document each case with a sworn affidavit and, armed with that evidence, Indian courts will free the child. In recent months, the International Justice Mission had freed more than 200 children.

    One of these children, Kanchen, was bonded for six years. She now attends a special school for freed children. Through a translator, she said that she was bonded when her mother died and the family needed money for funeral expenses. During her bondage, her employers beat her up for being late or for doing bad work, she said.

    Another student at the school, Koobie, bonded for four years, was also beat up and even burned with a hot knife one day.

    Haugen sometimes gets affected by stories like this, he said: "In a lot of ways as a law enforcement professional, human rights worker, whatever, you tend to take a clinical approach. You have to do this documentation;…put the evidence together so you can make the case."

    "But every once in a while, you do sort of step back, and you see these children as children. And sure you have to choke it back," Haugen noted.

    60 Minutes II showed some of its footage to Customs Commissioner Kelly, who said that the pictures provided enough evidence to legally bar imports of Mangalore Ganesh cigarettes into the United States.

    August Update

    Soon after the 60 Minutes II report first aired in the fall of 1999, the U.S. Customs Service banned the import of bidis made by Mangalore Ganesh.

    And an Indian court heard the cases of Shamshad, Shurmitbonu and Karmela. All have been granted their freedom.

    The broadcast was produced by Bill Owens and Margaret Ebrahim; the Web story was produced by David Kohn;