Maharashtra sugarcane workers on strike; crushing season likely to be delayed

Cane workers are seeking a hike in their wages to Rs 400 per tonne — the same payment, which is given for the use of a harvester machines.

The cane crushing season in Maharashtra is set to commence by October 15. The season, however is likely to get delayed as the state’s 15 lakh sugarcane labourers have gone on a strike seeking higher wages.

The workers announced the strike after talks with the Maharashtra State Cooperative Sugar Factories Federation (MSCSFF) fell through. The sugarcane workers now want NCP leader Sharad Pawar to intervene.

Cane workers are seeking a hike in their wages to Rs 400 per tonne — the same payment, which is given for the use of a harvester machines. The workers claim that the coronavirus pandemic has affected their financial conditions.

DL Karad, president, Sugarcane Cutters and Transport Workers Union said that the wages of workers should be hiked before the start of the season as the pandemic has hit the workers hard.

Currently, workers get wages of Rs 239 per tonne, but they have demanded the wages to be increased to Rs 400 per tonne. The labour contractors are also demanding a hike in the commission paid to them from 18.5% to 30% of the cane workers’ wages, he said.

Before the start of the season, the contractor usually pays the cane workers family for the entire season which comes upto Rs 60,000 to Rs 70,000 for the entire crushing period which may last upto 120 days.

Keshav Andhale, ex-MLA and convener, Gopinath Munde Sugarcane Workers, Transporters and Contractors Association, said that the cane workers have not received any kind of wage hike in the last 5 years. Maharashtra has followed a system of arbitration for the last 30-35 years, he said.

“Earlier, Sharad Pawar spoke on behalf of the factories and Gopinath Munde on behalf of the cane workers. Any settlement between the workers and factories was worked out amicably between the two.

Now Maharashtra minister Jayant Patil and Gopinath Munde’s daughter Pankaja Munde have taken on these roles. However, several organisations have come up in the last five years causing lack of unity among the workers. Now some organisations are against the system of arbitration,” he explained.

Sanjay Khatal, MD, MSCSFF, said three meetings were held between various cane cutter organisations and the federation but these fell through since the workers are not willing to budge from their stand. There is no unity among the worker organisations. Some want a system of arbitration and some do not. Some are willing to settle for lower wages and some are not,” he pointed out.

Andhale has said that the workers would not let the season commence unless the factories agreed to their demands. “We are not only seeking a hike in wages but also want the state government to pay insurance to workers and pension as well. The factories should provide proper medical and Covid care facilities,” he said.

Khatal said that mechanical harvesters are only used to the extent of 5-10% and most factories prefer manual labour. Maharashtra has around 200 mechanical harvesters in use and another 200 odd machines were expected to be added in this season.

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