Skip to main content

Labour union ‘forces’ South Gujarat coop sugar factories to offer 18% wage hike

By Anushka Rose* 

On June 8, 2022, the cooperative sugar factories of South Gujarat announced a wage hike of Rs 50 per tonne for sugarcane harvesting workers. The 18 percent wage hike meant that nearly one lakh tribal families who migrate every year to harvest sugarcane from surrounding regions would carry home an additional income of Rs. 9,000 per family. This amounts to incremental wages to the tune of Rs 90 crore.
If the incremental commission of Rs 20 per tonne for the mukaddams (the labour contractors who recruit workers and hail from the same community) is added, then the incremental wages amount to Rs 126 crores. This is a rare achievement as the vast mass of informal workers in India are rarely able to organize and undertake collective negotiations with employers.
It was a result of an innovative organizing strategy adopted by Majur Adhikar Manch (MAM) the informal workers’ union in Gujarat that has been engaged in organizing informal workers in Gujarat for more than 15 years now.
MAM has been fighting for the rights of the sugarcane harvesters in the sugar factories of South Gujarat for the last seven years. Nearly two lakh tribal workers migrate every year from Districts of Dang and Tapi in Gujarat and Nandurbar and Dhule in Maharashtra to work in the cooperative sugar factories of South Gujarat in Surat, Navsari, Valsad, and Bharuch districts.
The workers migrate for six months in a year with their families. Over the years, through relentless efforts, intensive awareness campaigns and mobilization efforts among the harvesters and the mukaddams, MAM has been successful in ensuring a rise of Rs 37 per tonne in the daily wages of the sugarcane harvesters till 2021. This entailed that the workers experienced a rise from Rs 238 per tonne per koyta (in 2015) to Rs 275 per tonne per koyta (2021).
In February 2022, MAM’s persistent advocacy and representations to the Government resulted in a draft notification announcing a revision in the minimum wages for the sugarcane harvesting workers to Rs 476 per tonne. 
Owing to the efforts of MAM and harvesters demanding implementation of the draft notification, in June 2022 the sugar factories were compelled to increase the daily wages of the harvesters by Rs 50 per tonne and Rs 20 per tonne rise in the commission of the mukaddams. 
Thus, the factories committed to paying Rs.325 per tonne to harvesters and Rs. 75 per tonne to the mukaddams- a historic milestone in the struggle of the sugarcane harvesters.

A brief story of the struggle

On March 30, 2021, the Gujarat government announced a rise in the minimum daily wages of agricultural workers from Rs 150 to Rs 268; after adding the DA, the wages would then be Rs 340. 
It is widely known that even though sugarcane harvesters are agricultural workers, the revised minimum wages were inapplicable to them. This is due to the fact that the sugarcane harvesters are the only group of agricultural labourers who received wages based on piece rate.
Accordingly, this would require that the State announce a separate notification for the revision of their wages. However, given the strong political lobby of sugar factories and cooperatives, it was ensured that the wages do not get revised. For the last seven decades, the sugar factory owners and the Sugar Federation have ensured that the wages of the sugarcane harvesters remain abysmally low.
Owing to the non-responsiveness of the State, the Sugar Federation and the Sugar Factories to the demand charters to bring the wages at par with the prevailing State’s minimum wages, MAM organized a public meeting with the sugarcane harvesting workers from the three states (Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra) in Dang on September 23, 2021.
While welcoming the revision on the statutory minimum wages, the workers collectively raised a demand that their piece-rate wages be indexed with the prevailing statutory daily wages for the agricultural labour which would be Rs 539 per tonne per labour. The workers under the banner of MAM presented memorandums citing this demand to the Gujarat Government officials in Dang and Tapi along with Labour Commissioner in Gandhinagar.
In the absence of any response MAM resorted to legal recourse, and with Advocate Anand Yagnik at the helm – two notices were issued to the State and a PIL was filed in Gujarat High Court. After much pressure from the workers collective, the government declared a draft notification of minimum wages of sugarcane harvesting workers at Rs 476 per tonne on February 5, 2022 with two months period for implementation at the same time inviting objections and suggestions.
MAM responded to this notification and demanded Rs 539 per tonne as minimum wages. After two months, the draft notification was not passed in the Gazette. Keeping these events in mind, a meeting of workers working for various sugar factories in South Gujarat was held on April 18, 2022 in Valod. The following decisions were taken to ensure that the notification was implemented:
  1. Disseminating the provisions of the draft notification among the sugarcane harvesters across South Gujarat.
  2. All the sugar workers demand and pressurize the sugar factories to implement the new draft notification and refuse for an agreement for the next season unless the notification was implemented by the factory management.
  3. Put pressure on the state Government to issue the final notification. Organize a public meeting in Dang to mobilize workers and ensure release of final notification is expedited.
On May 26, 2022 a meeting of sugarcane harvesting workers was held in Subir to demand implementation of the draft notification. With discussion led by the worker leaders, members of MAM (the workers and the mukaddams) decided that unless the sugar factories commit to paying wages as per the revised wages declared by the State Government’s draft notification, they would not enter in to an agreement to work for the upcoming season and the recruitment process would be stalled.
This marked a change from the earlier strategy adopted two years ago when the Union sought to stop the migratory movement just before the season was about to begin in October. This time the Union mobilised the workers at the time of signing the agreements for the next season in June.
The decision to not sign the contracts for supply of labour was conveyed to all the sugar factories through their recruitment managers in the first week of June when they arrived to book workers for the new season starting in October. The mukaddams and the workers stated that unless all the sugar factories agreed to implement the revised wages of Rs 476 per tonne, they would not migrate from their respective villages.
This resolve was conveyed to the various sugar factories. Responding to the workers' immovable resolve, on June 6, Pandwai Sugar Factory announced – that it would pay Rs 325 per tonne wages to the harvesters and Rs. 75 per tonne for the mukaddams. This meant an increase of Rs 50 per tonne for the workers and Rs. 20 per tonne rise in the commission of the mukaddams. Following this, on June 9, the biggest sugar factory in South Gujarat, Bardoli Sugar Factory, announced the same in a recruitment meeting in Subir.
This announcement marked a triumph for the workers – since for the first time in the history of sugarcane harvesters of south Gujarat– the sugar factories were forced to respond to the demand of the workers and announced the hike.
It is a mark of the strength of the collective struggle of the workers and thus stands as a milestone in the long struggle of the harvesters towards ensuring dignified living wages. However, the workers and their leaders in the same meeting stated that if the state Government notifies the new minimum wages, the same would apply for the season.
As the workers persevere in their struggle, this is a historic victory for the sugarcane harvesters. Responding to the consistent demands of the workers' community, the announcement would mean that the sugarcane harvesters would receive a benefit of Rs 126 crore in the new season. 
The victory was achieved through innovative organizing strategy, policy advocacy with the state, and tactical legal action. It provides a template that can be replicated across many other sectors where migrant workers are deployed.
---
*Research coordinator with Centre for Labour Research and Action

Comments

Sujata Madhok said…
It's great to learn about such successful collective bargaining in the unorganized sector at a time when unions in the organised sector are losing steam! More power to the sugarcane workers! Would like to know more about their union....

TRENDING

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

How lead petitioner was rendered homeless when GM mustard matter came up in SC

By Rosamma Thomas*  On January 5, 2023, the Supreme Court stayed a December 20, 2022 direction of the Uttarakhand High Court to the Indian Railways and the district administration of Haldwani to use paramilitary forces to evict thousands of poor families occupying land that belonged to the railways.  Justice AS Oka remarked that it was not right to order the bringing in of paramilitary forces. The SC held that even those who had no rights, but were living there for years, needed to be rehabilitated. On December 21, 2022, just as she was getting ready to celebrate Christmas, researcher Aruna Rodrigues was abruptly evicted from her home in Mhow Cantonment, Madhya Pradesh – no eviction notice was served, and nearly 30 Indian Army soldiers bearing arms were part of the eviction process. What is noteworthy in this case is that the records establishing possession of the house date back to 1892 – the title deed with the name of Dr VP Cardoza, Rodrigues’ great grandfather, is dated November 14

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Savarkar 'criminally betrayed' Netaji and his INA by siding with the British rulers

By Shamsul Islam* RSS-BJP rulers of India have been trying to show off as great fans of Netaji. But Indians must know what role ideological parents of today's RSS/BJP played against Netaji and Indian National Army (INA). The Hindu Mahasabha and RSS which always had prominent lawyers on their rolls made no attempt to defend the INA accused at Red Fort trials.

Tax buoyancy claims when less than 4% Indian dollar millionaires pay income tax

By Prasanna Mohanty  In FY18, the last year for which disaggregated income tax data is available, only 29,002 ITRs declared income above Rs 5 crore, while Credit Suisse said India had 7.25 lakh dollar millionaires (the wealth equivalent of Rs 8 crore and above) that year. Often enough, the Centre claims that demonetization in 2016 raised tax collections, improved tax efficiency, and expanded the tax base. Now RBI Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) member Ashima Goyal has also joined their ranks, attributing the “claims” of rising tax collections in the current fiscal year to “tax buoyancy” brought by the demonetisation . Do such claims have any basis in official records? The answer is unequivocal. The budget documents show the tax-to-GDP ratio (direct plus indirect tax) increased from 10.6% in FY16 (pre-demonetization) to 11.2% in FY17, remained there in FY18 (demonetization and GST fiscals), and then fell to 9.9% in FY20. In FY22, it improved to 10.8% and is estimated to drop to 10.7% in

Cyrus Mistry, PM Modi’s brother: What do these accidents have in common? Merc!

By Rosamma Thomas*  In September 2022, in an accident at Palghar near Mumbai, Cyrus Mistry, former chairman of the Tata Group, died in a road accident . On December 28, 2022, a road accident in Mysore left one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s brothers injured. What is common in these accidents? The car that crashed into the divider on the road, in both these cases, was manufactured by “prestigious” German manufacturer Mercedes Benz. One former dealer of Mercedes Benz cars in India has been raising issues of the threat to the lives of those riding these cars for many years now. Cama Motors, among the oldest dealers of foreign cars, having started business in pre-independence India, noted over 10 years ago that Mercedes Benz was indulging in corrupt practices . The cars are currently priced between Rs 41 lakh and Rs 2.92 crore in India; few people realize that the pride of owning a Merc comes at considerable risk to life. Cama Motors carefully documented several of the flaws on a websi

Gandhian unease at Mahadev Desai book launch: Sabarmati Ashram may lose free space

By Rajiv Shah  A simmering apprehension has gripped the Gandhians who continue to be trustees of the Sabarmati Ashram: the “limited freedom” to express one’s views under the Modi dispensation still available at the place which Mahatma Gandhi made his home from 1917 to 1930 may soon be taken away. Also known as Harijan Ashram, a meeting held for introducing yet-to-be-released book, “Mahadev Desai: Mahatma Gandhi's Frontline Reporter”, saw speaker and after speaker point towards “narrowing space” in Gujarat for Gandhians (as also others) to express themselves. Penned by veteran journalist Nachiketa Desai, grandson of Mahadev Desai, while the book was planned to be released on January 1 and the meeting saw several prominent personalities, including actor-director Nandita Das, her scholar-mother Varsha Das, British House of Lords member Bhikhu Parekh, among others, speak glowingly about the effort put in for bringing out the book, exchanges between speakers suggested it should be rele

Civil rights leaders allege corporate loot of resources, suppression of democratic rights

By Our Representative  Civil rights activists have alleged, quoting top intelligence officers as also multiple international forensic reports, that recent developments with regard to the Bhima Koregaon and the Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register of Citizens (CAA-NRC) cases suggest, there was "no connection between the Elgaar Parishad event and the Bhima Koregaon violence." Activists of the Campaign Against State Repression (CASR) told a media event at the HKS Surjeet Bhawan, New Delhi, that, despite this, several political prisoners continue to be behind bars on being accused under the anti-terror the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Addressed by family members of the political prisoners, academics, as well as social activists, it was highlighted how cases were sought to be fabricated against progressive individuals, democratic activists and intellectuals, who spoke out against "corporate loot of Indian resources, suppression of basic democratic

Kerala natural rubber producers 'squeezed', attend to their plight: Govt of India told

By Rosamma Thomas   Babu Joseph, general secretary of the National Federation of Rubber Producers Societies (NFRPS) at a recent discussion at Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, explained that it is high time the Union government paid greater heed to the troubles plaguing the rubber production sector in India – rubber is a strategic product, important for the military establishment and for industry, since natural rubber is still used in the manufacture of tyres for large vehicles and aeroplanes. Synthetic rubber is now quite widespread, but styrene, which is used in making synthetic rubber and plastics, and also butadiene, another major constituent of synthetic rubber, are both hazardous. Prolonged exposure to these even in recycled rubber can cause neurological damage. Kerala produces the bulk of India’s natural rubber. In 2019-20, Kerala’s share in the national production of rubber was over 74%. Over 20% of the gross cropped area in the state is under rubber cultivation, with total

Bangladesh 'rights violations': US softens stance, fears increased clout of China, India

By Tilottama Rani Charulata*  In December 2021, in addition to the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the United States imposed sanctions on seven former and current officers of the force, alleging serious human rights violations. Benazir Ahmed and former RAB-7 commander Miftah Uddin Ahmed were banned from entering the US. RAB as an institution was also canceled the support it was getting from the US and its allies. At the same time, those under the ban have been notified of confiscation of assets held abroad. The anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladesh Police, RAB is the elite force consisting of members of the Bangladesh Army, Bangladesh Police, Bangladesh Navy, Bangladesh Air Force, Border Guard Bangladesh, Bangladesh Civil Service and Bangladesh Ansar, and has been criticized by rights groups for its use of extrajudicial killings and is accused of forced disappearances. The government of Bangladesh has been insisting about lifting the ban on RAB, but the US had till recen