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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....

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