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South Gujarat sugarcane harvesting workers' struggle leads to 10% hike in wages

A sugar workers' protest, September 2019 
By Sudhir Katiyar*
Cooperative Sugar Factories of South Gujarat have hiked the wages of sugarcane harvesting workers by Rs 25 per ton to Rs 280 per ton. The commission paid to the labour contractors has been hiked by Rs 5 per ton to Rs. 55 per ton. This was declared by the labour supervisors of the Cooperative Factories at their meetings with the labour contractors, known locally as mukaddams, on August 18 and 19.
The wage hike will impact nearly 2.5 lakh tribal workers who migrate every year from districts of Daang and Tapi in Gujarat and Dhule and Nandurbar in Maharashtra to harvest sugarcane in farms of cooperative sugar factories of South Gujarat.The workers have organised under the banner of Majur Adhikar Manch, a trade union of informal workers in Gujarat, to demand higher wages and improved work conditions. Last year the workers had imposed a moratorium on migration demanding that the wages be hiked.
The Union also gave a call for work stoppage during the season in the month of February. This year too, as the season began, the Union had stepped up its campaign and threatened to impose a moratorium again unless wages are hiked and other demands are met. The factories have announced a hike in wage. They have also promised to respond positively to another major demand of insurance against accidents and Covid-19.
Sugar workers meet in Dangs district
The workers work under conditions that are frequently referred to as modern day slavery. A pair of workers toil for up to 12 hours a day to harvest and load on to trucks one MT of sugarcane for which they were being paid Rs 255 so far. Thus, average daily wage worked out to Rs 127.50 that is significantly less that Rs 178 per day for agriculture workers in Gujarat. However, what is even worse is that the workers take an advance before they are engaged for work. At the end of the season, they have to pay back one and a half time the amount taken as advance. This works out to an interest rate of more than 50 percent per annum. 
The advance is necessitated by the fact that the factories do not pay the workers regular wages as defined under the Payment of Wages Act. Instead,they provide bare minimum food ration and pay wages at the end of the season in gross violation of law. The workers migrate from their homes and live for six months literally on the road in tents of polythene sheets without any basic facilities like drinking water, electricity, and sanitation. Children migrate with their parents and join them at work as there are no educational facilities at the camp sites.
The union is demanding Rs 400 per ton as the wages for harvesting sugarcane.The long work hours and pitiable work conditions have been confirmed by a Time Motion study undertaken by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay. The study reported that a pair of workers takes eight hours to harvest one ton of sugarcane and carry it to the truck for loading. 
Sugar workers on strike at their camp
The current work conditions entail extensive abuse of labour and human rights of workers as entailed below:
  • Creation and perpetuation of system of bonded labour by Cooperative Sugar Factories of Gujarat: The system of recruitment and conditions at work place fulfil conditions of bondage as specified under The Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act. The workers are recruited against advances against which they have to pay a usurious rate of interest (at least 5 percent per month). They cannot leave before the work is completed. There is no regular payment of wages as specified under The Payment of Wages Act. While they are paid statutory minimum wages at piece rate, the piece rate is fixed so low that it is almost two third of the statutory minimum wage on a time rate as explained in the next section.
  • Extremely low fixation of piece rate by the State of Gujarat that ensures that daily wage rate is two-thirds of the time rate minimum wage: The state Government has fixed minimum wages for sugarcane workers on a piece rate basis. This piece rate was notified as Rs 238 per ton by the Government on January 21, 2015. Studies carried out show that a unit of two persons working together for 10 to 12 hours per day is able to harvest one tonne of sugarcane per day. Thus, daily wage rate works out to Rs 119 per day that is two-thirds of the time rate agriculture minimum wage of Rs 178 and 38% of the industrial minimum wage of Rs 313.
In addition, there is violation of Inter State Migrant Workmen’s Act, Child Labour Act and numerous other labour laws like Provident Funds Act and Bonus Act.
It is noteworthy that the Centre for Labour Research and Action Union has undertaken mapping and research studies carried out and supported by Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung. It also sponsored the Time Motion study by IIT-Bombay referred to above.
--
Secretary, Centre for Labour Research and Action Union

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