As the agriculture sector in Pakistan transforms, so does its labour dynamics. Rural labour in the country has historically been an informal exercise, serving an exploitative feudal system and surviving in a legal vacuum — without a wage system or formal working hours and conditions.

Things have begun to change: the rural labour force is getting organised. Farming groups are strengthening their social power, negotiating both the cost as well as the time for a particular job. The labour contractors aware of workers aspirations are assuming the role to formally articulate their demands.

Their efforts have yet to get a legal framework but these are not causal exercises. Slowly, but surely, the power of choosing work, its timing and cost, is shifting to farm labour. The trend may be slow and week in some areas and strong and relatively fast in others, but it is certainly underway throughout the country.

The context of the current trends was set by increasing urban migration, especially during the last decade. The trend took the urban population from the traditional 30 per cent to 36.91pc. The 7pc dent in rural population came mainly from the landless farming community_ pool of rural labour force.

Slowly, but surely, the power of choosing work, its timing and cost, is shifting from farm owners to rural labour

Parallel to this numerical decline the demand for manpower shot up. In many areas, farmers started shifting from the one or two-crop system to a three-crop cycle generating additional demand for farm workers.

Another layer to this demand was added when more labour-intensive vegetables and fruits production shifted to deeper rural areas because urban peripheries — traditional suppliers of vegetables — started falling to ever-expanding housing schemes.

These factors put pressure on the residual rural labour force. To improve their bargaining position they started forming groups. More dynamic farm workers initiated organising these groups by involving contractors. The trend was facilitated by their numerical strength. The Labour Force Survey conducted by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (2017-18) puts the rural percentage at 39pc (30.20pc males and 67.20pc female) of the national labour force.

The evolving process of change is captured by Abad Khan, who owns lands in the central and southern Punjab, in these words: “The centre of gravity has started to shift. Farm owners used to know workers personally. They would summon better ones during the sowing and harvesting times. After the formation of workers groups the pick and choose facility ceased to exist. A group includes both efficient and slow workers. Contractors market these groups. They dictate terms and conditions of hiring on behalf of the group”.

Abad was not necessarily against the grouping. “They do deliver but the social power of landed class seems to be slipping.”

Other farmers supported Abad’s position. Naeem Hotiana from Pakpattan welcomes the trend for two reasons: it saves farmers from the hassle of finding employment and nudges bigger farmers to opt for mechanized solutions. This pressure is more on vegetables and high-density crop growers.

Iftikhar Haider of Bahawalpur explains this point: “Each acre of guava orchard has 2,200 trees. They need year-round pruning and cutting to keep them at a certain height and width. One can calculate how many people will be required to do the job manually in a 50-acre orchard. Mechanisation is thus the only option in face of scarcity of farm labour which is getting organised and assertive.”

Dilating upon some recent relief that came in an otherwise stressed rural market, Rao Azhar — a potato grower from Okara — says that the rampaging pandemic has given temporary respite to the rural labour market.

“Many migrants have returned, especially in an area like ours which falls within two hours of travel from big cities. Life in metropolises like Lahore has become difficult and finding daily work is even harder. It is, by all means, an interim relief that would go away as soon as life in the cities returns to normal. However, labour relief coming from South Punjab to central regions of the province seems more durable. As the cotton crop sinks, taking the economy of South Punjab with it, the labour force there hardly finds any work, especially during winters when wheat takes over fields and needs minimum labour to mature. During this period, Central Punjab is busy harvesting potatoes and sowing maize. For the last two years, the labour force from the South has provided some relief to the central regions. It, however, works in groups and under the same protocol as the rest of the province,” he says.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 3rd, 2021

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