By: Hasan Mansoor
MATIARI: For 60-year-old cotton picker Mai Bachil, life is grim in the vast and rich land of this largely out-of-sight Jamal Dahiri village where her bare hands, marked with old and new abrasions, are her only asset used adroitly to feed herself, her divorced daughter and grandchildren.
She lives in a small mud-thatched house, surrounded by shrubs and trees, where she and her young daughter, Razia, find little rest after a punishing work schedule and nurse their hands that suffer new cuts every day.
They work long hours in the fields to pick cotton as much as they can and yet merely eke out a miserable existence.
The two are part of a large population of women cotton pickers across Sindh who remain unaccounted-for in the overall labour activity across the province. They find no protection from the law and are completely at the mercy of landlords who decide their wages and the circumstances in which they work.
“There are five phases of cotton picking that completes in three months,” says Mai Bachil, recalling that she was a child with a fair complexion but her work in scorching heat over the decades has deprived her of everything including her skin colour.
In the first phase, a landlord hires cotton pickers on a daily wage basis ranging from Rs150 to Rs200 and allows no one to ‘waste time’ to relax in blistering heat. For every phase that follows, one or a group of cotton pickers have to pick at least 40 kilos of cotton to earn Rs300 regardless of the time spent on achieving the target.
“Even if we achieve that target in one day, the amount has to be distributed among many labourers of the group and comes to a measly sum,” says Laadi, another worker.
“The remuneration is so meagre that sometimes we can’t feed ourselves and we virtually starve when landlords do not allow us to take some okra or other vegetables from their lands,” she complains.
A huge labour force awaits recognition in the districts along the left bank of the Indus River. The cotton-rich districts of Sanghar, Ghotki, Khairpur, Matiari and large swathes of Hyderabad, Nawabshah and Mirpurkhas districts are the key cotton-producing regions.
In rural areas of Pakistan, women play a major role in agricultural production, livestock rising and cottage industries and remain busy from dawn to dusk to supply food to men in fields, fetch water, collect fuel wood and manage livestock.
With respect to crops, women’s participation is particularly high in cotton, rice, pulses and vegetables. “More than 500,000 cotton-picking workers are involved in the business across the province. A dominant majority of them are women and most are Kolhi and Bheel, minority Hindu Dalits,” says Javed Hussain who heads the Sindh Community Foundation, a civil society organisation involved in the mapping of the population in the trade and finding their key socio-economic issues.
Rice and cotton cultivation in Sindh and Punjab jointly account for more than one-third of women’s annual agricultural activities. According to the Labour Survey of Pakistan (2006-07), 70pc of female labour force is engaged in agriculture and its allied fields, which includes milking and livestock.
The 2006-07 labour survey was the last one carried out in Pakistan.
The bodies of cotton pickers also have to bear the onslaught of sprays of poisonous pesticides to the crop which cause skin allergies.
“They are always suffering from infections and illnesses and usually die untreated,” says Mr Hussain.
He explains that neither the government nor the growers provide surgical gloves and umbrellas to them unlike what is a norm in the neighbouring Indian state of Rajasthan. A pair of surgical gloves, which can protect women from all sorts of health hazards for many months, cost just Rs500, he adds.
While a majority of landowners are not ready to purchase them, we are trying to convince a few of them, he says.
“It is a huge humanitarian issue that has been neglected by everyone at the helm of affairs so far,” Mr Hussain adds.
Khatil Faiz, a peasant-cum-educator in the village, says she was there to make women cotton pickers aware of their rights. “I am myself a peasant and wife of a peasant. But I am now aware of my rights. I know it is not enough; it is mandatory that every woman in this trade know about her rights and strive to get them,” she adds.
She says women are responsible for the cotton-related industry’s success and growth but they remain poor themselves as their wages are abysmally low.
Women cotton pickers are not organised, she says, adding that they are uneducated, vulnerable to sexual harassment, poor in decision making within their families and not recognised in the government’s labour policy as labourers.
“All of us have a long way to go,” says Khatil Faiz.Mai Bachil, like many other women in the village, is disappointed with their elected representatives – the Makhdooms of Hala – and says they will not vote for them in future because as representatives they failed to improve their constituents’ living standards over the past decades. “It is about time women took decisions, as men have already decided for us for so long and have almost always failed us,” she adds.