Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Women cotton pickers find power in uniting over wages

Azeema Khatoon, a mother of five, has spent most of her life labouring in Pakistan’s sunbaked cotton fields for less than $2 a day.
Last year, she and a group of around 40 women struggling to feed and clothe their families on their meagre wages did something almost unheard for poor women working in rural Pakistan — they went on strike. The gamble paid off.
Khatoon, 35, says she has nearly doubled her wage in the past year, now taking home $3.50 a day compared to $2, with her success just one story cited by labour activists to encourage rural women to band together and form a united workforce.
Illiterate women like Khatoon make up the bulk of the estimated half a million cotton pickers in Pakistan, the world’s fourth largest cotton producer, after China, India and the United States, but their working conditions are often poor.
Khatoon said she worked for hours for little money in the fields of Sindh where she lives in Meeran Pur village about 225km north of Karachi.
“Before our collective bargain we made no profit from our work,” said Khatoon, picking rows of fluffy, white cotton shining under the afternoon sun near Meeran Pur. “We all collectively decided to refuse to work for low wages,” she added, proudly.
Pakistan is one of the few Asian countries where agricultural wages have gone down, not up, in the past 10 years, according to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Britain’s leading international development and humanitarian think tank.
The ODI said rural wages are rising across Asia. But Pakistan remains one of the few exceptions. Power shortages plague the factories. Agricultural productivity is stagnant. Landlords are hugely powerful.
Daily hazards
Agricultural wages in Pakistan have a massive impact on women, and in turn on their families. According to the International Labour Organisation, 74 per cent of working women aged 15 and are employed in agriculture.
The 2014 Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum ranked Pakistan as the second worst country in the world in gender equality after Yemen.
Many women are employed informally on low earnings and with limited protection, with women’s agricultural wages falling to an average of $1.46 a day in 2012 from around $1.68 in 2007, said the ODI in its recent Rural Wages in Asia report.
On top of the meagre wages, women labourers also tell labour activists that landlords or managers will sometimes try to cheat them of their rightful money because they cannot read the records. Sometimes bosses sexually harass them.
Heat stroke, snake bites, exposure to pesticides and cuts on their hands from handling the rough cotton bolls are other hazards of their daily toil.
Muhammad Ali Talpur, the director of the government-linked Pakistan Central Cotton Committee, says owners are sympathetic to the workers’ problems but warns paying much higher wages may drive Pakistan’s cotton farmers out of business.
“Cotton producers are being squeezed by low prices and producers are having a hard time to meet their costs,” he said.
Global cotton prices have fallen, hitting a five-year low this summer due to slowing demand from China, a glut in the market, and growing popularity of manmade fibres.
Pakistan produces about 13m bales a year from a world total of about 119m bales. This year the government has already bought one million bales to try to shore up the price.
Javed Hussain, the head of the Sindh Community Foundation, said they talk to small landlords and train workers how to read market prices, trying to ensure there is negotiation, not confrontation. He said the bigger landlords weren’t usually willing to negotiate over wages and there was no legislation protecting casual agricultural workers but small owners did often sympathise with their workers.
Karim Ullah, who owns a small cotton farm near Meeran Pur, agreed to pay his workers $3 per day this year but said he couldn’t raise wages further unless cotton prices rose.
“We pay wages according to the rate at which the cotton is sold. Only if the going price increases can I pay the pickers more,” he said. “Also, I’m just a small farmer. It’s the big landlords with hundreds of acres who set the rate.”
Published in Dawn

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