Footprints: slavery in the fields of plenty

Updated 08 Aug 2017

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Back-breaking work at a rice paddy.—Photo by writer
Back-breaking work at a rice paddy.—Photo by writer

SHEIKHUPURA: It's a sweltering June day in Muridke. The harsh summer sun glints off of the rice paddies, which cover thousands of acres in this area. Some of the world’s finest Basmati rice is grown here. Dotting these paddies are the colourful figures of hundreds of women bent over the sodden earth, manually planting each seedling. Razia Bibi and her daughters wade through the pesticide-filled sludge that fills the field. They hold bunches of seedlings in one hand and use the other to swiftly place each plant into the earth. Doing this work for every summer of their lives has made their movements almost mechanical and working in large groups, they manage to transplant rice over large swathes of land each day. But, the land they work on is not theirs, neither is the rice they grow.

The working conditions are harsh; the water that fills the fields is full of leeches and corrosive chemicals. Each day someone in the group collapses from the heat. The wages are abysmal. But, Razia is a widow with six children, two of whom have polio. So in a place like Muridke, her options are limited. Like most industrial cities along this stretch of the G.T Road, Muridke is chaotic, polluted and deeply unequal. Capitalist development has come here in bits and has left most behind in its wake. The nouveau riche drive expensive cars on perpetually dug up roads and the forlorn faces of the poor stare from the back of Qingqi rickshaws. Small- and medium-sized industrial units are ever multiplying but never have enough electricity. There is a McDonald’s, but basic civic amenities are absent, as are educational and employment opportunities.

In the urban areas most women work in the informal sector as domestic workers, whereas in the rural areas they are employed in agricultural labour. In most farms, makeshift cots hang from trees where babies of the women working in the fields sleep. Toddlers splash around in the polluted water in the rice paddies; as soon as they have sufficient control of their hands, they are expected to join their family in agricultural labour. Within the rice value-chain, women’s main role is during the transplantation of rice from nurseries, which takes place for around 45 days once a year. Explanations of why this task is reserved almost exclusively for women vary.

The women rice workers argue that the transplantation of rice is too arduous a task for men to perform. Others such as landowners claim women are able to stay bent for longer periods of time. In the past, women were also involved in the harvesting of rice and would collect the grain. However, most farmers now use mechanical harvesters, which has taken away these women’s chance of collecting some grain to take home.

Faces of depravation

Shagufta is 16. She was eight when she was forced to leave school and join the rest of her family in agricultural labour. “My mother said she could no longer make ends meet so it was time I contributed to the family income,” she says.

She misses school. “I used to hate the teacher, he would beat us. But now I wish I could turn back time. I wish I could throw on a starched white uniform, go to school and study hard. I even miss the beatings,” she says with a wistful smile.

For a whole day’s work, Shagufta says she makes around Rs100, none of which she gets to keep. “If I have done the work, I should get to keep the money, but that’s not how it works, is it? I give every penny to my family because if I don’t, nobody gets to eat,” she says.

Women’s work in the transplantation process is part of the package of services offered by a group or a family on a single acre of rice for which they are paid between Rs2,500 and Rs3,000; the individuals within the group are not separately compensated.

Shamshad Bibi is a rice grower. Landless farmers like her lease the land from landowners on which they grow crops to sell to a middleman, locally referred to as an aarti. She explains how the high cost of inputs, coupled with the expenses of the families, which almost always exceeds their income, puts them in an exploitative relationship with the aarti. “He is the only person who will lend to us. We borrow money for pesticides, fertilisers, electricity bills and also for weddings and medical emergencies,” she says.

“When the crop is ready, we take the harvested rice to the aarti who is supposed to pay for grain, but since most people have already borrowed so much, hardly any cash is given,” Shamshad explains. “When you’re illiterate you can’t even argue with the maths,” she adds.

Fatima Bibi, another rice grower, says she faces abuse and insult from whoever she asks for money, whether it is a loan or the payment of wages. “I’ve even been beaten for asking. Where someone had borrowed Rs1,000 they insist it was Rs2,000 and you can’t argue back,” she says.

Being poor means these women also have no social or legal protections against sexual exploitation and harassment. “The boys of landowners say lewd things to us. They throw water on the girls and try to grab us any chance they get,” Shagufta says.

Her aunt Zubaida says this is very common, no one says anything: “We are too poor to take these people on.”

A large portion of the income earned by these families goes towards medical expenses. The arduous labour is taxing on the body. Fumes rise from the polluted water and affecting the lungs. Almost all those who work in rice paddies suffer from foot immersion syndromes, a condition so common in rice workers that it is called ‘paddy-foot’, where the skin begins to decay and blister, leading to sores breaking out. Constant immersion in water also causes the nails to become infected and come off. The paddies are full of snakes and leeches, and bending down for hours at a stretch leaves many permanently handicapped.

Shehnaz Bibi says she was a little girl when her mother passed away and her grandparents put her to work in the fields. She continued to transplant rice for the rest of her life, until the age of around 65 when she suffered a herniated disk. “I was bending down to transplant the seedlings one day and when I tried to get up, I couldn’t. Since then, I have suffered from severe back pain,” she narrates.

There are no free medical services in these villages and travelling to the nearest government hospitals is an added expense. Fatima Bibi says the hospitals are so overcrowded, the staff treats poor people like her very badly.

“If you have money you can go to see a private doctor, otherwise you can suffer at home and die. No one cares,” Shehnaz Bibi states.

Hope on the horizon

International NGO Oxfam is working towards promoting sustainable supply chains for agricultural products within which women are adequately compensated. The country director for Oxfam in Pakistan, Mohammad Qazilbash, tells Dawn that agribusiness companies have a role to play in improving the conditions of rice workers. “Oxfam is working with Matco, Pakistan’s largest rice exporter, and other agribusiness companies to promote corporate social responsibility and other private-sector regulatory frameworks to ensure better conditions for rice workers,” he says.

However, Qazilbash adds that consumers couldn’t be absolved of responsibility either, urging them to “make more ethical choices and ask businesses how their rice is sourced. They need to demand that workers are treated in a dignified manner in accordance with labour laws.”

Additionally, he says, the government must play its role in promoting pro-poor policies and ensuring that adequate health and childcare facilities are provided to cotton-pickers, rice growers and other workers in the agriculture value-chains.

The writer is a development professional and a former member of staff.

@shiza__malik