Women Agricultural Labourers’ Struggles: Key Issues
(Paper circulated by AIPWA at the Women's Conference held as part of Asian Social Forum event.)
The following are some central issues and ideas which have arisen from AIPWA’s work with women agricultural labourers.
The gender composition of agricultural wage labour is changing significantly in the era of globalisation. ‘Feminisation’ of agricultural wage labour is a result of a combination of regionally diverse processes which in many regions began well before the 1990s. In paddy cultivating regions especially, women’s labour has always been the major basis of production. But the proportion among women counted as ‘main workers’ who are agricultural labourers has increased rapidly in relation to that among men since the early 1960s. This trend has been further intensified by the New Economic Policies since the early 1990s. In particular, the collapse of rural non-farm employment and the growing crisis in the agricultural sector is leading to massive long-term, long-distance migration by men from rural poor households in areas like Bihar and Eastern U.P., leaving women to survive through agricultural wage labour. Women’s dependence on agricultural wage labour as a source of income has also increased in these regions with the destruction of many household based industries employing mainly women.
Women have participated actively in wage struggles - these struggles have generally been launched during the periods of peak labour demand : in areas where rice is the major crop, these are paddy transplanting and paddy harvesting, in which women participate heavily. It has therefore frequently been women who have initially placed wage demands before employers, and subsequently collectively refused to work.
And women’s participation has gone much further than this: in Bihar for example, women have also led marches of thousands to physically occupy land for redistribution, and have been at the forefront of resistance and protest against the repression unleashed by the landowners and the police. It is women who, armed with bricks, small scythes or household utensils, have driven the police out of their villages when they have arrived heavily armed in midnight or dawn raids, or who have surrounded police jeeps and snatched back those arrested, even forcing the police to apologise in some instances.
As feminisation increases however, women are increasingly becoming the centre of these struggles. In Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, women mobilised thousands in a sustained struggle for equal wages. Some months ago when activists in Central Bihar were holding discussions with labourers in different villages about the formation for the first time of a separate organisation for agricultural labourers, the Khet Mazdoor Sabha, they found that women were often the most enthusiastic. They felt that here at last was an organisation that would represent their specific needs and demands. Even in households where men showed little interest, women came forward to join the organisation. And they encouraged their daughters to join - when the men would say ‘what is the point, she will be going to another village once she is married’ the women responded that ‘when she goes, she will take part in the organisation there’.
A feature of the globalisation of Indian agriculture has been an acute employment shortage for those dependent on agricultural wage labour for survival and this has hit women hardest. The collapse of non-farm rural employment, the crisis faced by small cultivators, and the decline in access to land among the rural poor have all contributed to the increasing numbers of agricultural labourers. The overall agrarian crisis has left the rural economy unable to cope with natural disasters like drought and much of the burden is borne by poor and landless women labourers. In drought-hit Tamil Nadu for example, women labourers in Thanjavur district report that for the past two seasons, around 30 women are being employed in transplanting jobs previously done by 8 women. Thus wages have gone down drastically, and many women have been forced to take up domestic labour or semi-bonded agricultural labour simply in order to survive.
In addition, in several areas where women have successfully fought for wage increases, employers have attempted to undermine these struggles by introducing harvesters, and by bringing in male workers from outside to do paddy transplanting (traditionally done by women) on a contract basis . For example in Bhabhua district in Bihar, the employment available to women in transplanting and harvesting has declined from one-and-a-half months per year five years back to only 5-10 days in some villages. However women are actively resisting these moves and demanding that where there are enough women to harvest, harvester combines should be prohibited. In places where employers who used harvesters called women to do the weeding, they refused, telling them to invent machines to do the weeding too! In East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh too, women labourers physically prevented harvesters from operating. Similar protests have also been taking place in Ghazipur and Chandauli districts of Eastern U.P.
Patriarchal oppression intensifies the exploitation of women agricultural labourers by their employers Patriarchal values and relationships legitimise the exploitation of women labourers. In Bihar, whereas the official minimum wage for agricultural labour is Rs.48.71 per day, an AIPWA workshop in which women from 15 districts participated revealed that the wages for transplanting work have increased very slowly, from Rs.10 ten years back to Rs.15 five years back and Rs.20-25 today, depending on the area. Even such increases have occurred only in areas where struggles have taken place. Women are in general paid lower wages and face worse working conditions than their male counterparts. In Bihar women are paid up to Rs10 less than men. Men workers are generally also given a meal, whereas women are not, even though women often have to bring young children with them to work. The only areas where men and women receive equal wages are those where wages are extremely low. Unequal wages are justified on the basis that women’s work is “less arduous” or women are “less efficient” even though this is evidently not the case.
Employers also use patriarchal and feudal relationships and values to try to prevent women labourers from organising. For example during the struggle for equal wages by women agricultural labourers in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, landowners attempted to break the strike by urging husbands and parents of the women labourers to bring them “under control” and make them withdraw from the struggle. However this attempt failed due to the level of organisation and determination of the women themselves.
For many women agricultural labourers, sexual harassment and abuse by employers or other members of the landowning classes is a daily occurrence. This has been a key issue around which struggles have taken place (see below).
Global capital is incorporating existing pattern of exploitation of women agricultural labourers and adapting them to its own needs as global capital increasingly penetrates Indian agriculture it incorporates existing feudal and patriarchal forms and patterns of exploitation and reshapes and adapts them.
For example flower farms in Karnataka are owned by American, Japanese, Dutch and Israeli companies in collaboration with Indian firms. A report describes the farm managers’ strategy for dealing with the mainly women workers : ‘the managers speak of the need to handle the workers delicately to overcome problems such as absenteeism. They seek the advice and assistance of village elders in the vicinity in identifying reliable workers and later, in maintaining work discipline in the farms. Village elders also seem to enjoy the attention they receive from the senior officers of the floriculture farms – it gives them a sense of importance especially in these troubled times when their sense of dignity is being challenged by their former clients’. Thus the corporations are fully aware of the uses of maintaining the existing rural hierarchy in controlling their workers, and are in fact providing a cushion against the transformation of relationships between the dominant landholders (the ‘village elders’) and the lower caste poor (‘their former clients’).
Meanwhile, alongside this corporate farming, we can observe the contracting out of flower production to local landowners whose flowers are collected and checked by middlemen and transported directly to the airport for export. Here one can witness the most explicit forms of feudal and patriarchal exploitation of women. It is on these farms, 40-50 kms from Bangalore, that girl children as young as ten are engaged as bonded labour. On payment of a lump sum of Rs. 1000-2000, or in some cases a larger amount in the form of a loan, to their parents, these girls are attached to farm households for periods ranging from one season to one year, made to work in flower plucking and packing as well as whatever household labour is demanded of them, and often face sexual abuse.
In many regions, men of the dominant landowning groups have considered it their birthright to sexually abuse and even rape poor rural women. This has been a central issue for labourers’movements and in areas like central Bihar where there is a long history of organising, women testify that landowners no longer dare to routinely commit such crimes. However acute violence against women is now being used by feudal forces and the state as a means to crush resistance and attempt to maintain the status quo. For example in the ongoing movement for land redistribution and minimum wages taking place in West Champaran district of Bihar, the police have particularly targetted women, raiding homes, dragging women out, pulling off their clothes and beating them up with rifle butts and lathis and arresting them.
The most extreme and inhuman forms of violence against women were witnessed in the Bathani Tola and Laxmanpur Bathe massacres carried out against poor agricultural labourer families in Bihar by the notorious landowners armed gang, the Ranvir Sena. These massacres parallel the recent much more widespread carnage in Gujarat, not only in their brutality but also in the cold-bloodedly fascistic ideology underlying them. The Ranvir Sena targetted women as those who would “give birth to Naxalites” and their children who would “grow up to be Naxalites” for the most horrendous mutilation and murder. These parallels with the actions of saffron fascists in Gujarat are hardly surprising since outfits like the Ranvir Sena have close links to the BJP and the VHP, sharing local leaders, funds, arms and a clearly articulated political ideology. The Ranvir Sena has the stated goal of ‘uprooting the red flag from Indian soil’. The links are made explicit in the recent formation of the ‘Jai Shri Ram Sena’(subsequently renamed the Soshan Mukti Sena) in the Bihar/U.P. border districts.
The struggles of women agricultural labourers lead to challenges to domestic gender relations women labourers’ involvement in movements for change has inevitably led to their questioning oppressive domestic relations within the home. Very often these challenges begin with the woman’s determination to be actively involved in the movement and her resistance to her husband and in-laws who attempt to prevent her.
In the movement for equal wages in Thanjavur referred to earlier, women who were facing violence as a result of their participation in the movement left their homes to stay in the organisation’s office at the height of the struggle, in order to continue to be active. In Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, women have refused to continue to tolerate domestic violence and have challenged men publicly on this issue. In Bihar we have found that the emergence of women activists at a village level itself has a profound impact in the context of a deeply feudal and patriarchal society. When women see women and men working as equals in the movement and particularly when they experience this themselves, the idea that gender equality in day to day life is possible takes root. Women become determined to fight inequality oppression on many different levels, using whatever means necessary.