Some months ago, people from Bheel community from Khairpur district staged sit-in protest outside Hyderabad Press Club (HPC). They were protesting against a local landlord for not allowing them and their families to leave area for hometown in Thar.
This included 197 family members including women and children. “They managed to escape from the area at midnight”, Bomo Bheel said who was protesting outside HPC.
Bomo Bheel said, “Due to drought in Thar, we have left the area in search of work at Faiz Muhammad Bhand Village where we started work as cotton pickers on the agriculture fields of local landlord from Bhand community.”
At the end of the season Bomo Bheel and others asked the Landlord to give them their dues before they could leave to go back home to Thar. They were instead told by the landlord “You have to repay me the amount of Rs.500,000 before leaving this areas because you have taken more amount than your earnings.”
Landlord then went on to say that the items they used daily during work- that he had paid – now needed to be repaid. The poor cotton pickers, who had no money for this new demand, continued working on the agricultural fields to repay debt amount. They have now worked for free, as serfs, for the past two years but the landlord is still not releasing them saying they still owe him debt.
This is not a fairy tale from Queen Sherezade’s collection of Arabian nights – this is feudal Sindh in reality. Sindh, with its convoluted relationships of power and control waiting for the young Bilawal and Asifa to do real work: real politics.
Cotton pickers, serfs of Bheel, have asked for help from all quarters – including government departments and police. To this day none has been given. During this time period, they have faced extreme levels of victimization and humiliation; it reached such heights that ultimately – despite knowing the consequences – serfs were forced to flee in the middle of the night from his atrocities.
Endemic Unemployment & unrealistically low wages
Bheel is a scheduled caste community and they are spending miserable life because of extreme-poverty in interior of Sindh. Majority of scheduled castes – including Meghawar, Kolhi, Bheel and Oad – are peasants and living in the remote and forgotten areas of the province.
Seasonal workers are hired on low wages which starts from Rs.100 to Rs.200 per day in Sanghar and other districts; social activist and journalist Muhammad Ali Kazi said hiring people on such unrealistic low wages makes peasants and worker to be stuck in what is described as “debt bondage”
Lack of employment opportunities and lack of skills forces peasant and workers from rural areas to agree to work on low wages in the first instance; Kazi explains.
It is practice seen in the rural area where local landlord outsource sowing and harvesting of different crops like cotton picking, Sugar cane cutting, Sapling plantation because peasants of local growers have not capacity to fulfil the said job within limited or given time, he said.
Parsari Bai told this scribe from Matiari district that she and her community were working from dawn to dust for picking cotton but they were paid low wages.
Besides low wages, They are not provided gloves and other safety equipment and a large number of women involved in cotton picking are infected with various diseases -especially of skin.
Chairman Sindh Hari Porhyat Council (SHPC), Punhal Sario said, “A large number of women are associated with cotton picking profession and have to work for long hours from early morning of 5:00 am to late evening of 7:00 pm at scorching sun and temperature of 49 degree as the temperature has witnessed a rise due to climate change.
Health issues: Non-provision of Safety Equipment
Besides, a large number of cotton pickers are facing serious health issues due to non-provision of health safety such as Umbrella, Gloves and others during working hours and they are seen infected with various diseases such Asthma, respiratory diseases, allergies, skin diseases and diarrhea.
Aside from this, workers have to pick the cotton from the cotton tree which is heavily pesticide sprinkled. Since there are about four rounds of pesticide spreading and local landlords or owners of agriculture crops do not bother to wait to resume work till impact of pesticide reduces.
More than a million people are working as cotton pickers in different districts of Cotton producing in Sindh province but majority of them are in Sanghar, Gotki, Matiari, Tando Allahyar, Tando Muhammad Khan, Hyderabad and Umerkot.
Informal category by provincial Government
Cotton pickers fall in the category of informal workers category; it is not formalized by provincial government to protect their rights. They are thus seasonal workers and work starts from July and ends almost in December.
Hari or Farmers were declared “Tenant” and therefore their rights are being protected under Tenancy Act 1950 which was later amended in 2013. In the same way, other workers especially working in small or big industries in urban areas were regularized by labor department through various schemes and institutes have been set up to extend additional benefits and protect their rights.
In the Generalized System Plus (GSP) scheme launched by the European Union an effort was made to extend the relaxation of the tax system for Pakistani products in lieu of labour reforms.
Pakistan had to ensure implementation of labour laws and human rights to avail this discount schemes and it had to start from 2013 and end on 2017, agricultural experts explain.
Bonded labour and peasants have repeatedly been freed by courts but the actual reason leading to “debt bondage” is unrealistically low wages and high rate of illiteracy among peasants and workers, he added.
Peasants and workers get stuck in debt bondage due to these forced low wages and besides this, there is no proper “account keeping” practice by peasants and workers because peasants and workers are illiterate. Some of them identify any symbol to keep account with landlord or owners. However they are in no situation to deal with the landowners.
Problems faced by women workers
Of total more than one million population of cotton pickers, there is 80 percent women and more than 80 percent of them are minority women from lower caste Hindu.
Lack of employment opportunities and lack of skills forced peasant and workers from rural areas to work on low wages, Kazi said.
Aside from those issues being faced by cotton pickers women, they are being harassed sexually by landlords and their men who monitor their work at the field, there is not any such mechanism to check this issue and control it.
In addition to this, Women from lower caste Hindu (Scheduled castes) are more vulnerable to sexual harassment than Muslim women and also facing the discrimination where they are not allowed to drink water from same pot or glass which Muslim women or men of landlord use.
Lack of awareness
Under the conventions of International Labor Organization (ILO), the state is also responsible for improving the working conditions at working places but this is not happening.
Sindh Community Foundation has launched an awareness campaign in different districts of Sindh province about their work, wages and health and especially collectively bargaining for increasing wages; it has become successful in getting their salaries increased to Rs.300.
The Sindh government has officially announced a minimum wage of Rs.13000 per month for informal labour and worker in the Sindh province; it is being implemented in urban areas but not rural areas.
Workers in rural areas have less negotiation power and bargaining powers than they do in urban areas. Unfortunately, so far, nothing has been done by concerned departments in the province to protect their rights.
Media and civil society has raised issues about such informal and seasonal sectors to protect the rights of workers. The provincial government has been forced to regularise other seasonal and informal sector to protect rights of workers including kiln sector and now the kiln workers have been brought to the formal sector.
The concept of manual picking
The concept of manual picking still exist in Pakistan, India, Azerbaijan and some other countries but manual picking has been replaced by machine picking in various advanced countries such as USA, China and others.
The Kiln industry has been declared industry and its workers are being protected under labour laws and social security schemes launched by the government. The cotton picking industry needs to move towards this direction.
There is a need for policy. Civil society and other organisations need to develop a draft policy to protect the rights of cotton pickers. This should include fixing minimum wages – at least Rs500 per day for every 8 hour shift, improving working conditions, introducing social safety measures and giving health cover to
It is the responsibility of the Sindh government to adopt legislation to protect the rights of cotton pickers by converting the informal sector of cotton pickers into formal sector.
Sahib Khan, is a working journalist originally from Sindh, now based in Islamabad.