Suffering in silence: Migrant cane cutters of Maharashtra

Overworked, poorly paid and deprived of any rights, migrant cane cutters, especially women are most vulnerable and continue to suffer from a number of health and security risks.
Women workers suffer the most (Image Source: Azhar Feder, Wikimedia Commons-CC-BY-SA-3.0) Women workers suffer the most (Image Source: Azhar Feder, Wikimedia Commons-CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Maharashtra is the second largest sugar producing state in India, after Uttar Pradesh where as high as 1.6 million farmers cultivate sugarcane on 0.7 million hectares of land. The sugarcane industry provides direct employment to about 0.16 million workers while 1.5 million workers engage in sugarcane harvesting and transport operations every year.

While Maharashtra boasts of having the largest cooperative sugar mills in India, private sugar mills are gaining prominence over cooperative mills over the last few years.

Cane is cultivated on only 4% of the total cropped area in Maharashtra. However, it consumes 71.5 percent of the irrigated water in the state and as high as 79 percent of sugarcane is produced in the drought prone regions of Maharashtra!.

Marathwada, one of most drought prone regions in Maharashtra continues to have a large number of sugar mills, inspite of low rainfall and dependence of the region on tankers due to acute water scarcity. Prolonged drought, failure of governmental schemes has led to severe agrarian distress in the region. Rising indebtedness has forced small farmers to migrate to western regions in the state to work as cane cutters and transporting labourers. 

A report titled “Human cost of sugar: Living and working conditions of migrant cane cutters in Maharashtra” by OXFAM discusses the findings of a study that sheds light on the lives and working conditions of migrant cane cutters in the state.

Working conditions of sugarcane workers are abysmal

Sowing of sugarcane in Maharashtra begins with the onset of monsoons in July or August, and harvesting is done next year between October and March. Most of the migrant farmers who take up cane cutting belong to the landless and marginalised communities. Banjara (30 percent) and Vanjari communities (32 percent) constitute a significant proportion of cane-cutter population in the state.

Overworked and underpaid

Workers are hired through informal, unwritten contracts by contractors called ‘mukkadams’ to work-in pairs or jodis comprising of a husband and a wife. A jodi cuts approximately 2 - 3 tonnes of cane in a day for which they are paid between Rs. 200 - 250 (as a couple) per tonne of cane harvested by them. Wages vary between Rs. 200 – Rs. 375 per day. The minimum wage is at Rs. 300 per person for a day’s work which has been decided by the Government of India for agricultural labour including those hired on contract in category C towns. Cane-cutters have to work for almost 12-15 hours in a day to earn an amount equivalent for 8 hours work.

Workers are not eligible for any leaves during their work and face wage deductions that can vary from Rs. 500 - 1000 per day for half a day or full day’s leave. The sugar mills do not take the responsibility of overseeing wage payments and the control is in the hands of the contractors who never fully settle dues and indulge in unexplained wage deductions.

Women often end up doing unsafe and backbreaking jobs

Workers often have to travel for as long as to two to three days to reach the work site. Many a times, children also accompany their parents in the cutting season depriving them of education and compromising the safety and security of the girl children. The work is also extremely exhausting and male workers in a jodi usually cut through the cane stalk and strip the leaves.

Female workers on the other hand are responsible for cleaning, tying of bundles, each weighing 40-45 kgs, and loading them in the trollies. The loading process is particularly risky for women and they have to climb the stairs set against the trolley carrying this heavy weight, and that too in the dark! Accidents and injuries are common in this process, as the ground is slippery and can have sharp objects or insects. Young children who accompany their parents to the field also end up working and perform tasks like tying sugarcane tops into bundles (4 - 5 kgs each), which they sell to farmers.

Women and girls suffer the most due to poor living conditions

The living conditions of the workers are equally bad. Many live in makeshift tents made of tarpaulin with no access to water, electricity or toilets.

Women and girls suffer the most due to lack of water and toilets. They have to fetch water from a public water supply for the entire family, and have no option but to defecate and bathe out in the open.

While  workers usually wake up between 3-4 a.m,  women have to get up even earlier to go out in the open for defecation in the dark in the absence to the toilets, for taking a bath and to prepare meals for the family before leaving for work.

Children engage in activities such as weeding, collecting firewood and tying of sugarcane tops into bundles. Adolescent girls have additional duties such as fetching water, and looking after their younger siblings and cattle.

All childcare and care work responsibilities are borne by women or adolescent girls. Nursing mothers carry their children to the sugarcane fields as crèche or Anganwadi facilities are absent. Adolescent girls are forced to drop out of schools and accompany their parents to the worksite due to safety concerns. They help with both work and household work and early marriages are very common among the girls. Women often face domestic violence, gender based violence, and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse while alcoholism and multiple sexual partners is common among men, which adds to the woes of the workers and family conflict and violence are common. 

For women workers, the situation gets more difficult during menstrual cycles due to the inability to maintain menstrual hygiene and use sanitary pads due to lack of toilets and water. Women often use dirty and damp cloth that increases the likelihood of infections.  Symptoms of leucorrhoea are very common among women as well as adolescent girls, which affects their work. Poor menstrual hygiene and care causes fungal and bacterial infections leading to pelvic inflammatory diseases (PID), vaginitis and uterine infections of several forms. In extreme cases this also leads to cervical cancer. Fear of cervical cancer is common among women who sometimes fall prey to medical malpractices such as unnecessary hysterectomies conducted by local private practitioners in the area.

Women workers continue to be deprived of benefits

Women workers are denied entitlements under Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act 2017 which leads to pregnant women working for the same number of hours as other women and under the same risky and strenuous conditions.

Women workers often undergo childbirth on the farm itself, with little or no medical assistance from anyone except other women workers. The post-partum recovery phase is considered leave without pay which forces new mothers to get back to the cane cutting work along with their new-born child in just seven or eight days due to absence of crèche facilities.

Sugarcane workers are not covered under social security benefits such as Employee Provident Fund (EPF) or Employee State Insurance Corporation (ESIC). Children of migrant cane cutters continue to be deprived of their Right to Education.

The way forward

The report ends by making some suggestions to change the sitaution of the cane workers and argues that:

  • Since cane workers are hired on an informal basis, their work falls outside the purview of the Factories Act and the Interstate Migrant Act. It is thus important to make the recruitment process transparent and formal so that due monitoring and accountability processes are established.
  • There is an urgent need to create awareness about SRH and hygiene among women and ensure access to sanitation facilities for the women. Access to quality public and free healthcare at the workplace are also important and stricter vigilance of private health practitioners and hospitals to prevent medical malpractices is needed
  • Water scarcity in the region is the root cause of distress migration among the poor and landless. It is thus important that policies and mechanisms on water governance take into account its impact on the most marginalised and vulnerable communities.
  • Mechanisms need to be put in place urgently to ensure that the Right to Education of migrant workers’ children is not denied.
  • Women workers must be protected under laws such as the 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act and get due benefits under the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017.
  • Human rights due diligence (HRDD) of sugarcane supply chain can be an important step in addressing the challenges faced by cane workers. There is an urgent need for sugar mills and food and beverage companies to come together and undertake HRDD in their supply chains as per the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
  • Food and beverage companies, sugar mills and standard bodies should play an active part in establishing effective non-state or operational grievance mechanisms (OGM) to identify and redress grievances.

A copy of the report can be accessed from here

Note:

OXFAM allows sharing of this document for purpose of advocacy, campaigning, education and research with due acknowledgemet of source.

OXFAM (2020) Human cost of sugar: Living and working conditions of migrant cane cutters in Maharashtra. OXFAM India Discussion Paper.

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