Shackled In Sugar: Unjust Labour Practices In Maharashtra's Sugar Industry

Acharaj Kaur Tuteja

2 July 2024 10:39 AM GMT

  • Shackled In Sugar: Unjust Labour Practices In Maharashtras Sugar Industry

    The Maharashtra sugar industry counts for 1/3rd of the sugar production in our country. Its fertile sugarcane belts not only underpin the state's rural economy but also sustain the livelihoods of millions of workers who migrate from drought-affected regions during the harvest season. However, despite its economic pertinence, the sugar producing powerhouse has long been mired...

    The Maharashtra sugar industry counts for 1/3rd of the sugar production in our country. Its fertile sugarcane belts not only underpin the state's rural economy but also sustain the livelihoods of millions of workers who migrate from drought-affected regions during the harvest season. However, despite its economic pertinence, the sugar producing powerhouse has long been mired in severe labour exploitation. The backbone of the industry is its workers, who hailing from impoverished areas, are subject to dismal working conditions and social marginalization. The following article aims to delve into these practices, while addressing the need for a comprehensive legislation to combat the same.

    The Mukadam System and Working Conditions

    The Mukadam is a man of political influence, hired by the sugar factories, who in turn hires cheap labour. Workers are hired through informal,unwritten contracts in work-pairs, usually husband and wife. These middlemen earn a commission ranging between 15–25 per cent of couple's hiring amount and are responsible for taking atleast 30 per cent of the wages earned by such labourers. These workers, lured by the promise of advances to cover travel and initial living expenses, quickly find themselves trapped in a cycle of debt and dependency. This debt is nearly impossible to repay within a single season due to the low wages offered, compelling workers to return season after season under the same exploitative conditions. Section 6 of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 states that any obligation of a bonded labourer to repay any bonded debt is extinguished, and no suit or other proceeding shall lie in any civil court for the recovery of such debt. In the Mukadam system, workers are still held accountable for debts through coercive means, contravening this section. The continuation of such practices indicates non-compliance with the Act, as the debts should legally be considered null and void, freeing the workers from their bonded status.

    After working for continuous 12-13 hours in the scorching heat, the worker pairs get 400-500 rupees on a daily basis. Breaks are not a concept, as there exist fines for not meeting the set requirement of harvested sugarcane per day. Article 23 of the Indian Constitution strongly condemns forced labour in all of its forms since it violates human dignity and goes against fundamental human rights principles. Arguing that the imposition of a minimal compensation for labour demands will not fall under the purview of Article 23's provisions would be an excessive limitation on the scope of the article's ban on forced labour.

    The workers are given basic material (bamboo) for setting up temporary shelters that do not withstand harsh weather conditions, and basic amenities like water, sanitation and electricity are not made available to them. Chapter VI of the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 provides for the welfareprovisions. According to Section 24, the employer mustarrange for adequate washing facilities, canteens, suitable shelters and medical facilities. Section 25 restricts work hours to eight on a daily basis with necessary intervals. Compromising these guidelines, imposes a direct health risk on the workers in the sugarcane fields and leads to otherwise avoidable hazards. The employer's duty to his hired help takes precedence over the sugar produce revenue. The Supreme Court, in People's Union of Democratic Rights v. Union of India established that under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the right to life, which includes the right to live with human dignity. The court expanded this interpretation to include the right to livelihood, health, and access to basic amenities such as shelter, food, and clothing. The labour practices for these seasonal workers are clearly a gross violation of their fundamental rights and must be remedied on an urgent basis.

    Women and Child Exploitation

    Some of the common health issues among the female workers include Leucorrhoea,Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID), Vaginitis, and various uterine infections. These conditions are often linked to poor menstrual hygiene and inadequate sexual and reproductive health awareness. Tampons and pads are expensive and hard to find, and there is nowhere to dispose of them. Without access to running water, women address their periods in the fields, with reused cloth that they try to wash discreetly by hand. Given the risk of the ailments, and the fear of losing out on precious work hours, many women undergo unnecessaryhysterectomies.

    Further, sexualexploitation is a common phenomenon in these regions. Women are often sexually abused by contractors and tractor drivers. Fearing loss of employment, these women are unable to seek the redressal required post such incidents under legislations like the POSHAct, 2013. Relevant authorities have a statutory obligation to inform these women about the complaint and enquiry procedure, so that they can approach justice in a timely manner. The provisions in the Act are supposed to translate into tangible benefits for these women, to foster a safe and equitable work environment.

    Pregnant women work the same number of hours and in the same settings as everyone else. Women labourers frequently give birth on the farm itself, with little to no medical support from anyone outside of their fellow female labourers. Due to the fact that the post-partum recovery phase is regarded as unpaid leave, new moms only get 7–10 days of rest instead of the suggested 6 weeks. The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017 provides for a paid maternity leave of 26 weeks for women, under Section 5(3). Women are also entitled to a medical bonus under Section 8, and creche facilities for their children. Nursing breaks must also be incorporated into their working hours. Routine denial of such rights sidelines the necessary safeguarding of their health and well-being. Providing maternity benefits is a huge aspect of enabling gender equality in the workforce, and enabling an inclusive culture.

    Since workers are hired in pairs of husbands and wives, families often marry off their children at young ages and to avoid any financial burden on themselves. These children are then made to work in the sugarcane fields, instead of being able to avail education in schools. Article21A of the Indian Constitution states that every child has the fundamental right to receive education. An educated populace is pertinent for economic and social progress. Denying children this basic right is highly detrimental to their potential futures. Additionally, Section 3 of the Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 prohibitsthe employment of children below the age of 14 years in any occupation, including agriculture. Employing children in sugarcane fields directly contravenes this provision. It exposes them to occupational hazards and perpetuates a cycle of poverty and dependence on the sugar industry.

    In BandhuaMukti Morcha v. Union of India, the Apex Court clarified that The right to live with human dignity, as enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, is deeply rooted in the Directive Principles of State Policy, particularly clauses(e) and (f) of Article 39, and Articles 41 and 42. This right encompasses the protection of workers' health and strength, safeguards against the abuse of children, the provision of opportunities for children to develop in a healthy and dignified manner, access to educational facilities, just and humane working conditions, and maternity relief. These are essential to ensure a life of human dignity. Neither the Central Government nor any State Government has the right to take actions that would deprive individuals of these basic necessities. Although the Directive Principles are not enforceable in a court of law, existing legislation that embodies these principles must be observed and implemented. Failure by the State of Maharashtra to enforce such legislation constitutes a denial of the right to live with human dignity as guaranteed by Article 21.

    The exploitation of workers in Maharashtra's sugar industry, particularly women and children, underscores a grave violation of human and labour rights, necessitating immediate legislative action and comprehensive reform. The abhorrent working conditions, including excessive hours, lack of medical care, and forced labour for pregnant women and children, contravene multiple statutes. The current labour framework fails to protect these vulnerable workers, who are also deprived of essential benefits like social security and maternity leave. There is an urgent need for targeted legislation to address these issues, reinforced by adequate funding for welfare boards to ensure effective implementation and monitoring. Solutions must include robust enforcement of existing laws, improved healthcare access, and educational opportunities for children, alongside stringent penalties for violations. The creation of a dedicated welfare fund can provide necessary support and resources, ensuring that workers' rights are upheld, and their dignity preserved. Sustainable change in the sugar industry can only be achieved through concerted efforts by the government, civil society, and industry stakeholders to eradicate exploitation and foster a fair and humane working environment.

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