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Government should encourage and form unions of cotton workers in Sindh

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The Hari Welfare Association (HWA) grieved over the Government’s total negligence and ignorance of economic and physical abuse of workers engaged in cotton production and cultivation in Sindh.

These practices are dangerous to sustainable agriculture practices in the cotton supply chain. HWA stated that of Pakistan’s total cotton production area, 35 percent is planted in Sindh, which engages millions of peasants and workers to grow and pick cotton.

In Sindh, except Kamber Shahdadkot, Jacobabad, and Kashmore, cotton is cultivated in all districts, including the Karachi division. The major cotton growing districts include Khairpur, Ghotki, Sukkur, Benazirabad, Nausheroferoze, Sanghar, Mirpurkhas, Umerkot, Matiari, Badin, and Tando Allah Yar.  

In a statement, issued on Sunday, Akram Khaskheli President HWA, regretted that labor and child rights laws (i.e., the Sindh Prohibition of Employment of Children Act, 2017, The Sindh Child Protection Authority, 201, The Sindh Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 2015, the Sindh Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2013, and the Sindh Industrial Relations Act, 2013), are not implemented to ensure the rights of workers in the cotton production process in the province.

He said that due to the non-implementation of laws, most of the workers in cotton farms worked in unsafe, vulnerable, and insecure work conditions; and cotton producers and pickers’ families face physical abuse and sexual violence, and abusive working conditions with low wages or rates, and excessive working times.

The HWA president said that in 2021, Sindh fixed the wage at Rs25,000. However, in cotton picking, women and children are not paid the minimum wage rate. Instead, they are provided for how much they collect.

Cotton pickers are paid as little as 500 rupees per day for 40 kilograms of cotton, which has low mechanization and widespread usage of low-wage labor.

The absence of mechanisms to ensure minimum wage policy in the cotton sector is also a cause of child labor; low family incomes push families to engage children. In Sindh, religious minorities and migrant workers are prone to labor exploitation. Religious minorities such as kolhis and bheels migrate from one district to another during cotton production.

 

The HWA president said that harvesting is done mainly by women. Picking cotton balls from the plant is arduous, monotonous, and hazardous, hence traditionally allocated to women. Cotton picking is the only job for which cash is paid on the same day, in general. No other work in the agriculture sector pays cash remuneration to women who work as unpaid family members.

Also, due to poor socio-economic status and lack of education, women did not have the bargaining power to negotiate per kilogram piece-rate wage for cotton picking. He grieved that cotton-growing communities (farmworkers, daily wage workers, and their families) suffer numerous obstacles, challenges, and health risks in the two provinces. Women and young girls perform cotton-picking tasks for low wages or no remuneration.

Children work in cotton farms in dangerous settings with their families in hazardous conditions in activities such as pesticide application and dangerous machinery.

The HWA said that children in cotton cultivation undertake manual harvesting (cotton picking), pesticide application, weeding, irrigation, and hybridization tasks. Most of these tasks fall into the category of hazardous work. Exposure to sharp tools and dangerous machinery, risk of snakebites and injuries from other animals, exposure to extreme environmental conditions, and exposure to agrochemicals including inorganic fertilizers and pesticides pose grave risks to children’s health. Children, primarily malnourished and often dehydrated, work without any protective gear in cotton cultivation.

According to the HWA, socio-demographic and political-economic factors are key risk factors for the abuse and exploitation of men, women, and children in cotton production and cultivation. Poverty, poor adult incomes, limited access to education, big household size, a lack of skills, and low income-generating and livelihood options describe homes that force children into the labor market, frequently into dangerous professions like cotton harvesting.

The HWA said that all labour and child rights laws should be implemented primarily for women and men workers in the cotton sector should be unionized and registered under the Sindh Agriculture Workers Act of 2019 and the Sindh Industrial Relations Act 2013. The Government should also constitute and activate district vigilance committees to prevent debt bondage in all areas of the agriculture sector.

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