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August 30, 2019

Women in agriculture


August 30, 2019

The Sindh government has taken an important step towards protecting the rights of female agriculture workers, with the approval of the ‘Sindh Women Agricultural Workers draft Bill 2019’.

This becomes the first government in Pakistan to introduce such legislation, showing that – despite all the weaknesses, shortcomings and ideological confusions – the PPP still retains its progressive and pro-working class ethos. The PPP government in the Sindh was also the only provincial government in Pakistan that passed a law to give agricultural workers the right to form unions.

The Sindh Women Agricultural Workers draft Bill 2019 will provide female agriculture workers all the rights, protections and benefits that had been denied to them so far, and which are available to industrial workers under the existing labour laws. Female workers in agriculture, livestock, fisheries and other agriculture-related work would be covered under this bill. This is a big step towards the empowerment and protection of rural female workers. This law will formally recognise the role of female workers in the agricultural sector.

According to the proposed law, a woman agriculture worker's salary shall not be less than the minimum wage fixed by the government, and the work day shall not exceed eight working hours and shall not commence until one hour after day break. The workers shall also be entitled to 90 days of maternity leave.

Under the proposed law, women involved in agriculture, fisheries, livestock and related work will have the right to access government services, credit, social security, subsidies and asset transfers in their own individual right or in association with other female agricultural workers. The law would also give the woman the right of collective bargaining, right to social welfare including child health, community development, economic profit and access to publicly supplied goods and services.

The draft bills says that “the woman agricultural worker shall receive pay in cash or in kind for any agricultural work undertaken individually, or as part of a family unit, on land and livestock belonging to her own family, or to someone else which shall be equal to [the] pay received by male workers for the same work”.

The government will register women agriculture workers, through the labour department, at every union council level. The registered labourers will be given the Benazir Card and holders would be able to make groups or associations.

Under the proposed law, the Sindh government would set up the Benazir Women’s Support Organisation (BWSO) under the labour department with an empowerment fund to provide technical and financial assistance to women workers. The organisation would register them, issue cards and maintain a database for their support.

If the government wishes to complete the task of worker registration through the labour department then the government should revamp the labour department. The bureaucracy and officials in the labour department are not capable of doing this task as the history shows us.

Trade union representatives, reputed labour lawyers, representatives of industries and labour experts should be inducted in the labour department to make it more efficient and representative. The government should set up committees at the district and tehsil levels to monitor the registration process.

The proposed law has left no ambiguity in the definition of agriculture work. It clearly defines agriculture work as “all activities related to cultivation of crops, animal husbandry, poultry, livestock rearing, apiculture, gardening, fishing, aquaculture, sericulture, vermiculture, horticulture, floriculture, agro-forestry, or any other farming activity carried out through self-employment, tenurial cultivation, share cropping, or other types of cultivation, collection, use and sale of minor or non-timber forest produce by virtue of ownership rights”.

The hundreds of thousands of female workers in rural Sindh will benefit from this legislation. But implementation of this law on the ground is equally important. If we have a history of making progressive laws, we also have a history of non-implementation of such laws. This is a big problem and needs the active participation, intervention and role of women organisations, trade unions and civil society organisations.

It becomes relatively easy to implement laws when the trade union movement is strong and able to exert enough pressure on the state officials. But when the trade union movement becomes weak and lacks the capacity to mobilise workers in big numbers, then implementation becomes much more difficult.

This empowerment and facilitation of women agriculture workers will have a long-lasting positive impact not only on the income, social security and overall wellbeing of their families but also on agriculture productivity.

Women agriculture workers are playing a key role in the agro-based economy of rural Sindh; they are major participants in food production in rice- and wheat-growing regions, as well as in cotton-picking processes. But the sad reality is that these women workers are caught in a vicious cycle of chronic poverty and super exploitation. Nearly half a million women workers in Sindh are involved in cotton picking, most of them Hindu. They work in slave like work conditions. The proposed law will provide them much-needed legal cover, protection and recognition.

The writer is a freelance journalist.