Many women employed in unauthorised prawn processing centres across the coastal belt of Kerala develop severe health problems due to unhygienic working conditions. SREEDEVI JACOB comments.
GEETHA BABU has just returned from hospital after a two-month stay for backache and urinary infections. Lifting up her hand, she points to the misshapen fingers and peeling skin. Till her hospitalisation, she was a prawn-peeler in an unauthorised peeling shed in Aroor panchayat of Alappuzha district in Kerala. Now, at 35, she suffers from chronic backache and constant bladder pinches. Geetha is not alone. Hundreds of women are engaged in prawn cleaning in unorganised pre-processing centres or peeling centres (also called hut peeling centres) across the coastal belt of the State.
And their story is not different from hers. The industry employs only women, with a couple of men functioning as supervisors in each unit. Most women join work by the time they are out of high school (many join in the latter years of school), they squat 10-12 hours a day cleaning the prawns and earn a daily wage of Rs. 70-100 depending on the weight of the produce. They work in unhygienic conditions, often not relieving the bladder for long hours. By the time they enter their 30s, they have severe back problems, urinary infections, uterine diseases, anaemia, high incidence of fever and sinusitis.
Kerala has the highest marine fish production in the country, and contributes to more than 50 per cent of marine exports. Its consumption of fish is four times the national average and seven per cent of the population depends on fisheries for livelihood. Peeling was earlier a part of the processing industry where big players ran their own peeling centres offering decent working conditions.
But the spurt in demand for the product required more manpower as well as establishment costs, which ushered in labour contractors who set up independent peeling centres which operate without registration and has very little set-up costs. An unauthorised peeling shed can be with or without walls, and may not have the facility for water and electricity. The sanitary conditions are deplorable and there are no separate toilets for women. The flooring is often of mud. Here 50-250 women squat, with the basin containing ice-cold water and prawns. The workers do not come under the Factory Act and there are no welfare measures. Moreover, the work is neither permanent nor regular.
The authorised peeling sheds are registered with the Marine Product Export and Development Authority (MPEDA) and have to meet the measures stipulated by MPEDA, which include steel tables for placing the basins, a change room, a rest room, presence of medical practitioners, cemented flooring and foot-dipper facility. While MPEDA checks the registered sheds from time to time, the unauthorised ones do not have a monitoring agency. "While MPEDA cancels the registration of independent processing units which do not adhere to its norms, there is no way we can check the unregistered ones," says A. Geetha, technical officer in charge of peeling sheds at MPEDA, Kochi. Babu Divakaran, State Labour Minister, says since the peeling sheds are not registered, there isn't much the state can do. "If some one lodges a complaint, the ministry can send its labour welfare officers and bring the culprits to book," he adds.
"In Alappuzha district alone, there are close to 300 unauthorised peeling centres," reveals advocate C.S. Sujatha, president of Alappuzha district panchayat, who has been campaigning against this exploitation. "These centres also release the waste into the nearby Chandiroor-Puthanthode canal, thereby polluting the environment," she adds.
"All these women are from below poverty line families. Whatever may be the working conditions, their socio-economic background forces them to concentrate solely on the revenue," says Sr. Alice Lukose who has been working in the fisheries sector for almost two decades. According to a survey she conducted in 1992, there were nearly 40,000 women in prawn cleaning in more than 1,000 makeshift sheds in Alappuzha district. Though exact numbers are not available, the demand for prawns points to a higher number of peeling sheds employing a much greater number of women. Added to these would be the hut-peeling women of Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram districts who are in no better condition. Moreover, these sheds operate under an oath of secrecy. No outsider is allowed to enter them and the women are asked not to speak to strangers about their work.
"There was a proposal to establish a pension scheme for these women, registering them as skilled labourers. Each woman had to pay Rs. 60 towards this annually, till they are 60, to get the pension after 60," says Sr. Alice. But the proposal met with resistance from the employees for the simple reason that no woman can work in these conditions till they are 60.
While the MPEDA insists that the women must stand and use gloves while peeling, no one cares for these rules in a hut-peeling centre. As 25-year-old Rajitha, who has been peeling prawns for the last 10 years, says, "Speed is of utmost importance to us. Our income depends on how much we clean a day." Hence the sitting position, though unhealthy in the long run, is encouraged." She also dismisses the wear-gloves theory as impractical.
"Women in big plants can afford to wear gloves, because their wages are protected. For us, cleaning one basin of prawns would fetch three rupees. We have to put up with the ice-cold water in which prawns are preserved and carry on with peeling.
Our masters never provide gloves, and even if they are given I don't know how many of us will use them, for they hamper speed," she confides.
"There are 18 hospitals in Aroor and Ezhupunna panchayats alone, most with prawn peelers as patients," reveals Sr. Alice. "It's the fear of losing the job which makes these women suffer in silence."
As Geetha says the women are aware that the unclean water deposits on the prawn leads to skin diseases and misshapen fingers; they know that holding the bladder too long can result in urinary infections; they also know that squatting 10 years of their life can cripple them. But they have very little choice.
The Quest Features and Footage, Kochi
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