Despite the law ensuring equal pay, women cultivators continue to receive lower remuneration

Women are nothing short of second grade employees in agricultural fields.

In agricultural fields on the outskirts of Channarayapatna, Karnataka, the daily wage for women is Rs. 100 plus free lunch. Landowners have arrived at this sum because the milk powder making unit of the Karnataka Milk Federation (KMF) at Shettihalli in Channarayapatna taluk offers the same wage for women labourers. Men get around Rs. 150.

“By and large, the nature of job assigned to men and women is the same. There is a perception among employers that men work more than women,” said Manjula, who works in tobacco fields at Ramanathapura in Arkalgud taluk.

Particularly during paddy cultivation, women have to work through the day standing in the fields. “It is physically strenuous. But in the eyes of landlords, it is no match to what men do,” she said.

Lakhs of women agricultural workers, who fall in the unorganised sector, suffer wage inequality in silence. Landowners tend to call it “soft work” and make it an excuse to pay less. Women in paddy fields, tobacco farms or potato fields get around Rs. 120 a day, while men get around Rs. 150 for the same work.

While organised plantation workers are better off and get equal wages in plantations, those hired on contract basis by coffee planters in Hassan, Chikmagalur and Kodagu districts get unequal wages. While men contract workers at a plantation get between Rs. 200 and Rs. 250, women are paid between Rs. 150 to Rs. 180. This is despite the regulation of Plantations Labour Act, 1951, that says men and women workers must be paid equally.

Savitha, who works in an estate near Ballupet in Sakleshpur taluk, says: “Earlier we were assigned jobs such as breeding, handling and plucking fruits. In recent years, the number of men working in estates has come down. So, employers ask us to do all work that men used to do, such as spraying pesticides, handling sprinklers and digging.”

Maternity benefits

Those who work in a plantation for more than 120 days are entitled to become permanent employees as per the Labour Act. However, many employers do not regularise services of unmarried or newly married women employees to avoid giving maternity leave benefits.

“As per the rule, women should get salary for six weeks before and six weeks after delivery. To avoid this, company owners and planters avoid regularising the services of young women,” said V. Sukumar, general secretary of Karnataka Plantation Workers' Federation.

For permanent workers, the minimum wage fixed is Rs. 130 per day and both men and women are paid on a par. There have been strikes demanding increase in minimum wage, which is yet to be met. Low pay has resulted in men giving up plantation work, which has meant women getting burdened with physically strenuous work for the same minimum wage.

Double shift

“Though we are paid on a par, we feel exploited. A few years ago, there were 100 workers on our estate. Now there are 20, mostly women,” said Sharada, a resident of Arehalli, who works in a coffee estate. She has to work both in the field and at home. Her day starts at 4.30 a.m. with cooking and preparing children for school, followed by eight hours of work on the plantation. “We have to work at home as well as at the plantation. Men hardly help us with domestic chores,” she said.