Prakash Naiknavare, managing director of the Maharashtra State Sugar Cooperative Factories Federation since 1999, says the migrant cutters, who feed the state’s 172 sugar factories with an uninterrupted supply of cane in the threshing season, “do not fit in the proper definition of labour since they are neither my (the factory’s) direct employees, nor the mukadam’s”.
Factories employ an army of cane-cutters every harvest season, but they remain in conditions of semi-bondage without any formal work contract or facilities.
The nine lakh sugarcane cutters are not labourers in the formal sense. They are not direct employees of my factories, or employees of the mukadams. They come and go every year. No labour legislation really applies to them. But we are paying higher wages per tonne of cane now, about 35% more.
But none of this reaches the cutters directly. And factories provide brokers advances at the start of each season to bring in the labour. Why not follow a formal employment system as per labour laws?
We’re changing the broker system. One or two factories are doing it by creating societies which pay by cheques. I don’t have details. But we provide the cutters many facilities. We send trucks at the start of the harvest to their village. We have schools for their children in every mill to ensure their education is not disrupted.
We visited several factories, which do not have schools. Others like that owned by sugar baron and BJP leader Gopinath Munde do not provide any education to children of cutters. A state government study estimates 1.7 lakh children are being denied access to education.
I don’t know which factories you might have visited.
The UPA government is currently drafting legislation, including one for agricultural labourers, mandating that employers provide social security for informal workers.
If there is a law, then it will be binding on everyone. But the sugar industry is already bleeding. Incurring costs on the cutters will bleed us even more.