MEERAN PUR, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Azeema Khatoon, a mother of five, has spent most of her life laboring in Pakistan’s sunbaked cotton fields for less than $2 a day.
Last year, she and a group of around 40 women struggling to feed and clothe their families on their meager wages did something almost unheard for poor women working in rural Pakistan - they went on strike. The gamble paid off.
Khatoon, 35, says she has nearly doubled her wage in the past year, now taking home $3.50 a day compared to $2, with her success just one story cited by labor activists to encourage rural women to band together and form a united workforce.
Illiterate women like Khatoon make up the bulk of the estimated half a million cotton pickers in Pakistan, the world’s fourth largest cotton producer, after China, India and the United States, but their working conditions are often poor.
Khatoon said she worked for hours for little money in the fields of Pakistan’s rural southeastern Sindh province where she lives in Meeran Pur village about 140 miles (225 kms) north of the provincial capital of Karachi.
“Before our collective bargain we made no profit from our work,” said Khatoon, picking rows of fluffy, white cotton shining under the afternoon sun near Meeran Pur.
“We all collectively decided to refuse to work for low wages,” she added, proudly.
Pakistan is one of the few Asian countries where agricultural wages have gone down, not up, in the past 10 years, according to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Britain’s leading international development and humanitarian think tank.
The ODI said in rural wages are rising across Asia, partly driven by a slow down in population growth, increasing agricultural productivity and migrants moving to cities.
But Pakistan remains one of the few exceptions. Power shortages plague the factories. Agricultural productivity is stagnant. Landlords are hugely powerful.
Agricultural wages in Pakistan have a massive impact on women, and in turn on their families. About 74 percent of working women aged 15 and are employed in agriculture, according to the International Labour Organisation.
The 2014 Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum ranked Pakistan as the second worst country in the world in gender equality after Yemen.
Many women are employed informally on low earnings and with limited protection, with women’s agricultural wages falling to an average of $1.46 a day in 2012 from around $1.68 in 2007, said the ODI in its recent Rural Wages in Asia report.
On top of the meager wages, women laborers also tell labor activists that landlords or managers will sometimes try to cheat them of their rightful money because they cannot read the records. Sometimes bosses sexually harass them.
Heat stroke, snake bites, exposure to pesticides and cuts on their hands from handling the rough cotton bolls are other hazards of their daily toil.
Khatoon and others have started bringing their school-age children to check the books, or tie knots in the edge of their colorful saris to count how many days they have worked.
“Even though they can’t read the numbers of letters, they can say I have worked one day for each knot,” said Javed Hussain, the head of the Sindh Community Foundation, which aims to improve the socio-economic conditions of communities and has trained 2,600 women in skills like bargaining and labor rights.
Muhammad Ali Talpur, the director of the government-linked Pakistan Central Cotton Committee, says owners are sympathetic to the workers’ problems but warns paying much higher wages may drive Pakistan’s cotton farmers out of business.
“Cotton producers are being squeezed by low prices and producers are having a hard time to meet their costs,” he said.
Global cotton prices have fallen, hitting a five-year low this summer due to slowing demand from China, a glut in the market, and growing popularity of manmade fibers.
Pakistan produces about 13 million bales a year from a world total of about 119 million bales. This year the government has already bought one million bales to try to shore up the price.
Hussain said the Sindh Community Foundation talks to small landlords and trains workers how to read market prices, trying to ensure there is negotiation, not confrontation.
He said the bigger landlords weren’t usually willing to negotiate over wages and there was no legislation protecting casual agricultural workers but small owners did often sympathize with their workers.
Karim Ullah, who owns a small cotton farm near Meeran Pur, agreed to pay his workers $3 per day this year but said he couldn’t raise wages further unless cotton prices rose.
“We pay wages according to the rate at which the cotton is sold. Only if the going price increases can I pay the pickers more,” he said. “Also, I’m just a small farmer. It’s the big landlords with hundreds of acres who set the rate.”