Human Cost Of Sugar
A Discussion on the Living and Working Conditions of Migrant Cane-Cutters in Maharashtra
Through a 2020 discussion paper assessing Maharashtra’s sugar supply chain, Oxfam India underscores the exploitative working and living conditions of the seasonally employed migrant workers. In a country where 93% of the workforce is informal and unregulated, Maharashtra is one of the largest employers. The Human Cost of Sugar uncovers the deep-rooted human and environmental crises of the sugar supply chain.
In drought-prone Marathwada region of Maharashtra, where agriculture faces the threat of water shortage, one of the highest water-intensive crops, sugarcane, flourishes on tanker-fed irrigation. The crop occupies 4% of the total cropped area, but consumes 71.5% of the irrigated water in the state. The plantation, which continues to further deplete already stressed natural resources, is an environmental obscenity in the region.
Moving the lens closer to seven sugarcane-cultivating districts of Marathwada, a rather poignant picture meets the eye. In the absence of alternative employment options in the region, several villages migrate to these regions to seek out a livelihood. Only a husband and wife ‘jodi’ is privileged to secure employment as cane-cutters and transportation labourers. Disregarding adherence to the minimum wage of Rs. 300/day/person, a jodi, derogatorily nicknamed “koyata” (literally translates to “sickle”), earns Rs. 200-250/day/couple.
Migrant workers begin their journey upon being informally hired by ‘mukkadams’ or labour contractors, usually against an advance. This advance would be settled against every tonne of cane the jodi would harvest. Workers shift base from their village to plantation sites for a season extending up to 6 months. They move lock, stock and barrel, carrying the smallest of things to avoid the need to secure any further credit. Usually along with the couple travel their children. A staggering 0.2 million children below 14 years of age migrate with their parents. Security concerns push for large number of girl children (46%) to relocate and eventually become child brides. Having been denied access to education, children often get folded into a system of unaccounted for family labour or domestic chores.
Workers briefly settle in makeshift tents of tarpaulin sheets in temporary labour colonies, which are devoid of electricity, toilets and even water. Women face the greatest brunt of this situation. They wake up before sunrise to relieve themselves and bathe in the open without being sighted, travel long distances to fetch water, and prepare meals for the house before leaving for work that may last up to 12-18 hours. Women are engaged in tying and headloading bundles of cane to trucks under precarious conditions. Labourer injuries and some instances of deaths are common but never compensated for. Mukkadams extend further loans to meet medical expenses caused due to unsafe working conditions.
In the absence of public health facilities and awareness on sexual and reproductive health (SRH), women commonly report symptoms of Leucorrhoea and other infections. Private medical practitioners fan fear and encourage hysterectomies in women. 85% of the cases were reported from private hospitals in Beed. In the lowest reduction of human ethics, women labourers have been denied the entitlements under the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017. Pregnant workers work the same number of hours as regular workers; unpaid leaves forces them to resume work in as less than 7 days after child birth, with their newborn in tandem; absence of crèche and Aanganwadi facilities are to be credited for this.
Lack of awareness and opportunity keeps cane-cutters trapped in an intergenerational cycle of poverty and indebtedness. The informal nature of their employment keeps them from accessing governmental or corporate schemes and benefits. Human rights due diligence (HRDD) of sugarcane supply chain is an important step towards identifying and addressing these challenges. This would require sugar mills, and food and beverage companies to engage together and incorporate HRDD in their supply chains as per the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.