Labour and rights activists on Friday demanded of the Sindh government to implement laws pertaining to the rights of agriculture workers, including Sindh Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 2015 and the Sindh Tenancy Act 1950.
Addressing the launch ceremony of ‘The State of Peasants’ Rights in Sindh 2020 report, prepared by the Hari Welfare Association (HWA), at the Karachi Press Club, the speakers expressed their concerns over the plight of agriculture workers, who were facing social and economic exclusion, expulsion from the agriculture fields where they worked and the non-payment of their dues by influential landlords.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated the rights situation of agriculture workers,” said Akram Ali Khaskheli, HWA’s president. He said a majority of agriculture workers did not receive minimum wages fixed by the labour department of the Sindh government.
Karamat Ali, the executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, underlined the need for the provision of rights to agriculture workers. He urged the Supreme Court to start hearing the review petition filed against the land reforms verdict of a Shariat Bench of the apex court.
He also demanded distributing all government lands to the landless peasants. He appreciated the recent statement of Justice Qazi Faiz Essa of the Supreme Court for the distribution of agricultural land to the government
Khizar Kazi, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s vice-chairperson, said the bonded labour situation in Sindh was alarming and cases are increasing. He pointed out that there was a need to form district vigilance committees in all 30 districts.
Zeenat Hisam, the researcher of the report, said the report mentioned the names of big landlords who had kept their peasants in bondage.
Abid Niaz Khan, a representative of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in the Pakistan Office, said Convention No. 11 of the ILO for the right to association of agriculture workers was ratified the then British government in India in 1919.
Pakistan inherited that convention but no serious efforts were made to implement it. The Sindh government had recently provided the right to the association to agriculture workers under the Industrial Relations Act 2013, he said.
Habibuddin Junaidi, the People’s Labour Bureau’s president, said that after the passage of the 18th amendment, many labour laws had been made in Sindh. Implementation of laws was a matter of concern and for that a comprehensive struggle was required, he added.
Nuzhat Shirin, chairperson of the Sindh Commission of Status of Women, said the commission had started holding a series of meetings with Hari women in Sindh to know about their working conditions.
Nasir Mansoor, the secretary-general of the National Trade Union Federation, said a general workers trade union of Haris and two trade unions of women peasant workers had been established in the province.
The apathy of govt
The year 2020 did not bring any positive legal and policy changes, directly affecting peasants, he said, adding that instead, the Sindh government had filed a petition in the SC, challenging the landmark October 2019 verdict by the Sindh High Court (SHC) in which the court had struck down regressive amendments in the tenancy law and addressed measures against bonded labour in Sindh.
Although the filing of this petition was done in January 2020, Sindh Agriculture Minister Ismail Rahu promised and confirmed that his government would not file an appeal in the SC against this landmark, pro-peasant decision of 2019. However, the Sindh government continued to pursue the case in the SC.
The speakers at the ceremony urged the Sindh government, the district authorities, and the district and session judges to play their part in implementing the SWAWA, the STA, and the SBLSAA, and to ensure activation of the DVCs so that the menace of bonded labor could be eradicated from agriculture and other sectors of the economy.
Highlighting the problems of agriculture workers, the report reveals that in 2020, 3086 bonded peasants, including 915 children and 1154 women, were released by the police on courts’ orders, according to reports in the media (data collected by the HWA).
From these 3086, a vast majority (1,436) were recovered from the illegal detention of landlords in Umerkot, a district marked by human development deficits in the form of under-five mortality, food insecurity, malnutrition, lack of health services, and poor quality of drinking water.
A significant number of bonded peasants and their family members were also released from Mirpurkhas (497), Sanghar (514), Matiari (234), and Badin (133) districts.
The report also highlighted that in eight years, from 2013 to 2020, 8,725 bonded peasants were released. Of these, 2,923 (33.5 per cent) were women. In 2020, in the release of these 3086 peasants, there was no single case in which the DVCs (in the districts in which DVCs have been constituted) played any role. In 2020, the GoS did not take any step to rehabilitate thousands of families living in many hari camps in Sindh.
Out of 29 districts of Sindh, by 2020 only 12 district vigilance committees were made up after letters from the secretary of the Sindh Labour Department and the repeated request letters from the HWA for the constitution and activation of the DVCs under Section 15 of the Sindh Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 2015, the report said.
Under the law, the district authorities must set up DVCs, comprising elected authorities and representatives of the district administration, bar association, media, social services, and labour departments, the report said.
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