Gujarat tribal workers demand regular payments, refuse to migrate for sugarcane harvesting -Ravi Kaushal

The labourers from Dang migrate every year to Bardoli—a hub of sugar mills—where they are caught in a system of advance payments that bind them to the workplace for the duration of the season.

Dang, a district in southern Gujarat, is witnessing one of the largest labour movements in its recent history after the tribal sugarcane harvesters of the district decided not to migrate to Bardoli and other neighbouring areas. Bardoli, considered a major centre for sugar mills in Gujarat, attracts approximately 1.5 to 2 lakh workers per year from Dang and Tapi districts in Gujarat, and Dhule and Nandurbar districts from neighbouring Maharashtra. These workers are hired for 7 to 8 months in a year to harvest sugarcane for factories. But the terms of hiring have become an untold saga of slavery in modern times.

The workers live on the outskirts of the villages in temporary shelters made from plastic sheets and bamboo sticks, and toil for up to 10-12 hours cutting cane in the fields. Then they are called back to load the harvested sugarcane into trucks. The statutory minimum wage is Rs. 238 per tonne (Mt) of harvested sugarcane that requires 10-12 hours of work by a pair of workers called koyta. In other words, a workers gets Rs 119 per Mt in the state which already ranks among the lowest for minimum wages in India. But the most mind boggling part is related with the advance payments to these workers by their contractors.

Contractors use the system of advance payments that bind workers to the workplace for the duration of the season. This is a common tactic used by employers to ensure a stagnant workforce during the whole work season. The sugarcane workers get an average of Rs. 15,000 advance per pair of workers. They pay back one and half times the amount at the end of the season. The workers are not paid any wages during the season. The settlement of wages is done at the end of the season. Most workers are not left with any surplus funds at the end of the season. The accrued wages get spent in paying back the advance and settlement of expenses incurred during the work season. Thus, forcing them to live a life of misery and debt.

So, how did this system start? Why do these workers travel 100 to 150 kilometres to work in these fields?

Please click here to read more., 4 October, 2019,

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