January 10, 2021

Women Workers and the Anti-Farmer Laws

Archana Prasad

INDIAN farmers have been agitating for the repeal of three farm laws ever since the enactment in 2020. However, this agitation has reached its peak since the last month with many of the Delhi borders being blockaded by the protesters demanding repeal of the ‘black laws’. Many women farmers and organisations have also joined the agitation because these laws will have a profound impact on the everyday lives of women. By now many have pointed out that implementation of the laws will create a crisis of survival for most farming households, and this will obviously put a greater burden on women who are responsible for fulfilling the daily needs of their families.

Women’s organisations have been particularly protesting against the amendments to the Essential Commodities Act, which will inspire hoarding of food grains and essential items, leading to a rise in prices. This will also attack the very basis of the public distribution system which is based on public procurement and distribution of food grains. Hence, in the current support for the farmers’ movement is based on the legitimate understanding that the farm laws will lead to growing hunger and food insecurity for most families in general, and the women of the household in particular.

Apart from the above-mentioned impact, there is also a need to recognise the profound effect of the penetration of agri-business for women workers in agriculture and related sectors. As we know about 70 per cent of all women live in the rural areas and approximately two-thirds of the women in paid work are dependent on agriculture for their primary occupations like farming, agricultural labour, dairy and fishing enterprises, collection and sale of forest produce etc. Apart from these, women also perform important tasks as unpaid workers in self-employed family enterprises which cater to the neighbourhood and local markets. Almost all of them are in the unorganised sector and will be profoundly impacted by the recent legislation.

The three farm laws, as we have repeatedly heard from experts and the farmers’ unions will change the nature of markets in agricultural and allied sectors. Though the focus of the discussion has been on the farming sector, the impact of these laws promoting market integration and contract farming for corporate will also be felt in the allied sectors like dairy, fisheries and food retailing. The laws will allow supermarkets and agri-businesses to control the entire production and supply chain from the shop to the farm gate through the corporatisation of small producers in the unorganised sector. This is especially true of the recent Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement and Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020, whose main aim is to create global value chains to enable the penetration of foreign capital in every farm and non-farm activity of rural India. Through such reorganisation, the government aims to attract nine 9 billion US dollars in the fisheries sector in the next 3-4 years, and gave consent for 100 per cent FDI in the dairy sector. More than 80 per cent of the production in these sectors is in the unorganised sector with women constituting about 70-72 per cent of the workforce.

It is therefore pertinent to ask how many, which, and how many women will be impacted by the laws in the non-farm allied sectors. Though the public data available to us is limited, on the basis of rudimentary figures, we can identify some segments in which women play a prominent role. The first type of unorganised sector enterprises is classed as ‘home-based enterprises’ whereabout 4.74 million women were estimated to be in paid economic activities in 2018; this constitutes about 7.5 per cent of all employment of women in agriculture and covers a plethora of activities such as animal production and post-harvest support activities. About a third of these workers are own-account workers whereas 61 per cent work as dependent workers in self-employed enterprises.  The second segment constitutes women in dairy farming and fisheries who constitute more than 70 per cent of the workforce in these sectors. As per the government’s own data, in 2016 there were about 17 million dairy farmers with a majority being women; in another study, it is estimated that with about six million women being employed for 90-120 days in milk production in 2018. Many of these rural enterprises provide important income to farming households; as per the government’s own estimate about 75 million farming households having at least one or two cattle with women doing a bulk of the milk production. There are about 10 million women employed in the home-based and retail fisheries sector in 2016. According to one estimate, 48 per cent of these women are in fish retail business and sell their produce in local markets. A third segment where women play a prominent role is street vending and food processing/retail. Though there are no reliable macro-figures for this segment some studies suggest that are about one million women in grocery retails and an unestimated number in food processing and retail. In addition, as mentioned above, there are approximately five million fish retailers. Hence, by even conservative rudimentary estimates about 10-20 million women workers in the unorganised sector will be impacted by these laws.

Seen in this context, the government’s pronouncements are set to bring about major changes in the life of women workers. Though it is difficult to project a comprehensive nature of the impact, some pointers are available from the corporatisation of the non-farm sector in other countries.

As experiences of several African, South East Asian and Latin American countries illustrate, contractual agreements with unorganised sector self- employed workers have led to massive price squeezes because of the unequal power equations between contracting parties. In the case of the penetration of the corporate in the dairy sector in China, studies relate the pricing scandals that resulted in lower incomes for small dairy farmers; a similar experience can also, be related in the case of France. In the fisheries sector too, several studies by the International Labour Organisation and independent researchers illustrate that low-paid contract employment and forced labour with the entry of supply chains. Within these, women workers face deteriorating conditions of work and even sexual trafficking in countries like Thailand and the Philippines. These examples provide a window into the possible impacts of the organisation of the rural economy into supply chains. Since women form the lowest end of the labour processes in many of these operations, it is obvious that they would face further exploitation in the quest for profiteering by corporate businesses in agriculture and the allied sector.

The previous discussion has highlighted the inter-linkages between farm laws and women workers in farm and non-farm production. The inclusion of dairy and fisheries in the definition of agricultural produce in the anti-farmer laws is an ominous pointer to the way in which women workers will be impacted. The democratic women’s movement needs to include some of these issues in its broader campaign in support of the farm laws. As we have seen, women will be impacted, not only as consumers or farmers but also as workers/producers in allied sectors. By highlighting these issues, the women’s organisations will enlarge the ambit of the struggle and help to make its scope more comprehensive.