Almost 81% population in India earns its livelihood by working in the informal sector. 97% of jobs in the country’s major employment contributing sector, agriculture, are informal. Women constitute a significant percentage of this workforce. In 2019, Oxfam India worked on two agri commodities, sugar and tea, and found that both these commodities occupy an important place in Indian households.
The supply chains of both commodities employ a large informal workforce and have a history of labour exploitation attached to them. Some of the key issues faced by workers and/or smallholder farmers in these supply chains are:
Wages/Income: Ease of entry due to lack of formal contracts and collective bargaining pushes workers into informal labour, with jobs paying lower than the state prescribed minimum wages. This exposes workers to risks of several kinds. For example, research on the tea supply chain found that workers in tea plantations receive poverty-level wages and more than half of the workers have below poverty line (BPL) ration cards. Workers seldom receive timely payments and unreasonable deductions are common. To meet household expenses workers are forced to borrow money at exorbitantly high-interest rates. The inability to repay forces them into poverty and forced-labour like conditions.
The working conditions of workers in informal set-ups are highly exploitative. They are subject to long working hours without any provisions for intermittent breaks for lunch, water or even toilet. Lack of toilet facilities implies that women have to relieve themselves in the open. In such cases, verbal abuse and sexual exploitation are common, but go unreported for the fear of losing jobs.
The living conditions of workers in these supply chains fail to reflect the respect, protection, and fulfillment of international human and labour rights. Housing and sanitation conditions are below standard. Almost in every family, all the members are engaged in labour, contributing to the net family income, to sustain livelihoods. Children (especially girls) are also forced to work or take care of their younger siblings, while their parents are at work. This keeps them away from their basic right to education. Poverty is one of the reasons that perpetuate incidences of domestic violence. Young women and girls driven to seek a better life elsewhere, find themselves in even worse situations, trapped by traffickers in domestic or sexual slavery.
The absence of formalized contracts expose workers in the agri-supply chains to job security risks. Social-protection policies and schemes targeted at informal workers, such as those under the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, have failed due to legislative shortcomings, inadequate budgetary allocations, and poor implementation.
The overall system is fragmented in such a way that the workers in the supply chains remain invisible and their voices fail to reach the right platforms. Transparency in supply chains is crucial to address these systemic changes. Though unorganized, these workers are core to the sustenance of these supply chains. Addressing their vulnerabilities and exploitations are fundamental to ensuring that India’s food systems are sustainable and responsible.