Still struggling : Pro-labour legislation has not helped women cotton pickers

Published: May 1, 2016


HYDERABAD: The Sindh Industrial Relations Act (SIRA), 2013, which has granted labour status to agricultural and fisheries workers, stands enacted, but the poor working conditions as well as low wages and lack of benefits which this workforce is subjected to have so far remained unalterable.

Worst still, a large section of these workers, the women cotton pickers, are not even recognised as labourers under the new law. Speakers at a seminar organised by Sindh Community Foundation (SCF) to mark the International Labour Day on Saturday dwelt at length on the predicament of women peasants who work in cotton farms.

“We spend the whole day standing and hunched down to collect cotton. And this grueling, menial toil brings in hardly Rs150 to Rs200 per day in income,” said Shabana Noor, a resident of Jamal Dahri village in Matiari who works in a cotton field.

According to her, the farm owners pay between Rs300 to Rs400 per maund of the collected cotton. But it takes two women peasants to gather that much of cotton in a day. So, the earning is divided. “Many among us are often helped by their children so that the income doesn’t get divided between two people.”

According to SCF, over half a million women are engaged in this profession mainly in Sanghar, Ghotki, Khairpur, Umerkot, Matiari and Mirpurkhas districts. The picking season lasts for five months starting from June and ending in October, with the starting and concluding months varying in different districts.

“These women are employed as informal or seasonal labour. Therefore, the law which stipuated Rs13,000 minimum wage for unskilled workers doesn’t apply to them,” explaining SCF’s Javed Soz. He lamented that the SIRA 2013 Act and other labour laws concerning wage, workplace safety and other benefits still face a lack of enforcement.

Prof Muhammad Ismail Kumbhar of Sindh Agriculture University said a lack of safety gear for cotton pickers is adversely affecting the health of women peasants as the crop is sprayed with pesticides.

“Working without safety gear, they [women] and their children commonly suffer from skin, chest and other ailments.

The speakers called for legislation and enforcement of labour rights and a curtailment in the use of pesticides to protect women cotton pickers.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 2nd, 2016.

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