HYDERABAD: A workers convention of the agriculture sector's women workforce has demanded the implementation of minimum wages under Sindh's labour laws to end their exploitation as cheap farm labour. At the event on Wednesday in Bhit Shah, Matiari district, hundreds of farm workers, mostly cotton pickers, gathered to articulate their demand.
The convention was organised by the Sindh Community Foundation (SCF). The Sindh Industrial Relations Act 2013 (SIRA) recognises the agricultural workforce as 'labour' and allows them to form trade unions. However, neither trade unions are being formed at the macro level, nor are appropriate wages being paid to the workers.
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According to SCF executive, Javed Soz, until last year cotton pickers were being paid up to Rs350 per 40 kilogrammes of picked cotton. "It took two women to pluck around 1.5 maund [around 60kg] a day with each getting slightly over Rs300 for a day's labour." He told that the wage slightly increased to around Rs350 per day this year in many parts of Sindh.
Up to a million women are estimated to be employed in this labour of picking cotton, which is mainly supplied to the textile sector. Cotton is cultivated in 10 districts of Sindh and Sanghar is the top producer. The picking season starts in July and continues through November.
"The growth of the textile sector is also indirectly dependent on these women who sadly remain poor and exploited due to extremely low wages," said Soz. Punhal Sario, a rights activist, said that in the absence of enforcement of the labour rights, farm workers like the cotton pickers remain exploited not only as means of cheap labour but also because of their working conditions.
The pickers are not provided with protective gear while working in the pesticides sprayed crops and they remain exposed to heat. Labour rights activist, comrade Taj Mari, said that though the law was enacted in 2013, the workers of agriculture and fisheries sector remain oblivious of SIRA and the provincial government is also not taking any initiative to implement their labour rights.
Syed Nadeem Shah of the Sindh Abadgar Board, a farmers' lobbying group, acknowledged the issues faced by farm workers, specifically women farm workers, and supported the enforcement of SIRA 2013. Pointing out that inflation and water shortage caused problems for the agriculturists, he emphasised that it is high time for the government to declare the agriculture sector an industry and provide it the required support.
Farm workers, Shamim, Aarti, Mehrunissa, and others, also expressed their views. They demanded that they should be registered as farm labour and covered under the social safety net and workers welfare board. They asked the government to create awareness among the farm labour to get registered as the labourers and to form labour unions. They particularly demanded health insurance cover for women farm workers as well as workplace safety.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 27th, 2018.