Oxfam India report highlights several heartbreaking realities faced by farm workers in the sugarcane farms of UP
The sugar industry in Uttar Pradesh has a significant contribution to the state’s economy and also to the livelihoods of lakhs of farmers who depend directly on cane farming. There is plenty of information on the economic importance of sugarcane and the challenges that sugar mills face. But very little is known of the plight of farm workers who pay the ‘human cost of sugar’. This blog highlights some of the key challenges faced by workers as found in the report.
Migrants And Children On Farm
Only farmers with large land-holding have resources to hire farm workers. Workers are hired on daily wage basis, contract rate basis or on a permanent basis for the entire season. The permanent workers are predominantly migrant workers from other states such as Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh. These workers are hired as an individual adult or child or as an entire family.
Often children are recruited by recruiting agents under false pretext of providing jobs in factories, found the study. Agents often pay a lumpsum advance to the families of children before recruiting making it impossible for the children to leave the farm and return home. In many cases these migrant children were reported to get paid extremely low wages ranging between INR 2000/month to INR 5000/month.
Never-Ending Work And Poor Pay
Unlike the daily wage workers or the contract rate workers who have their own challenges, the migrant workers have no flexibility at work. Their work is never-ending and apart from working in the farms they are also made to work in other non farming and household activities with no additional pay.
The report finds that it is common for the daily wage workers to not receive wages on the same working day; often they are paid after a gap of upto 10-15 days. For the contractual workers, the delay in payment could be even more, extending up to 7-8 months. At times they are paid only after the farmer has received his payment from the mill, which means end of a production year in some cases.
Trapped In A Vicious Cycle
A broken payment cycle and no access to formal financial services often forces workers to borrow money from local money lenders who are usually big farmers from the village. The interest rates for such loans is anywhere between 36% to 60% per annum. The high interest rates and unreliable income, forces the workers into a perpetual debt cycle. In many cases the workers end up repaying their loan by working on the farms of their moneylenders- either alone or with their entire family. The report highlights one such case where a worker who had borrowed money from his employer to build a house is repaying by working on his farm with his family.
Women Face More Challenges
Women workers face more challenges working in cane farms which is largely percieved as a ‘man’s job’ in a patriarchal state. Women are often paid less than half wages (INR 80-200) compared to that paid to men for the same type of work. During the study it was also found that some women work on the farms of other villagers in return of de-trashed leaves that they use as livestock feed.
These and many more issues affect the lives of the farm workers in the sugar supply chain. Many of these issues are covered in detail in the study published by Oxfam India. As consumers of food and beverages most of us are unaware of these violations. Awareness is the first step in the direction of bringing about a change. Do create more awareness on this issue in your network by sharing #HumanCostOfSugar.