Why We Need To Stand Up For The Cane Cutters

Why We Need To Stand Up For The Cane Cutters

A few days ago I was at the Ambalika Sugar Factory, 26 km away from Karjat in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district. We—my colleague Priyanka and activist Faruq Beg—were visiting these farms to understand the ground realities. Not many organisations work for the rights of the cane cutters in these parts. While the visit was distressing, If anything it further strengthened our resolve to work for the rights of the cane cutters who are one of the most deprived and vulnerable lot in the sugar supply chain. 

Our first stop was Bhambara village. It was nearly 1 PM. We pulled over and walked to where a few workers were standing, engrossed in very animated conversation. We tried to talk to them. The language was a barrier for the first few minutes, then gradually the broken sentences started to make sense and we started understanding each other. In the group was 16-year-old who could understand us most easily. Chanibai, a worker in the sugarcane field, was pregnant with her second child and stood with her two year old in her arms. She didn’t look very well taken care of. It hit us, how on paper there are laws on child and early marriages and schemes for women but they rarely reach the poorest of the poor.

We moved closer to the group of sugarcane cutters standing about with worried expressions on their faces and with their children gnawing at them. It turned out that they were looking for water. It was December but a sunny afternoon, nonetheless. And the children were getting very, very thirsty. One of the workers explained that they left their house i.e. cluster or kopis or residence at 5 am and since then haven’t received a drop of drinking water at the sugarcane farm. The farm owner and the supervisor (Mukadam) were supposed to arrange drinking water for them and they hadn’t.

While the wait for water continued, we started chatting about their wages. They had received about INR 35000-40000 for six months. This was surprising because in other places close by the cutters received INR 1 lakh-2 lakhs for six months. When we probed, the mukadam said, “They are not reliable, they may run back to their village before six months. There is the no guarantee of their continuity for the six months so offered them less amount in fear of the loss."

The cane cutters neither have any bargaining power to demand proper wages nor are they aware that some money from their advance is deducted in the name of insurance. The cane cutters are not aware of any health insurance or benefits, so almost always they go without accessing any healthcare services to get treated for diseases, illnesses or injuries. They work through their wounds and injuries—like Pushpa. Pushpa is from Ganga Maiyaa Sugar Factory, Ghotan Gaon, Shevagaon.

Thirty year old Pushpa was five months pregnant while she was working at the sugarcane farm at Shevagaon in Ahmednagar district. Everyone advised her against working. “If I didn't go for the cane cutting work I would have lost my daily wages. It would be a big loss for us. We work for six  months and feed our family, for the remaining 6 months there is no guarantee of the work. So this is our only income. If I didn’t work with my husband, we would get less money. How would we have fed our family?” Pushpa asks.

So she worked with her husband. As it is it was tough for her to work through the pregnancy, one day while collecting sugarcane leaves she hurt her eye with the blade of the leaf. She was injured, rushed to the hospital, but she wasn’t treated for the eye since she was heavily pregnant. A private hospital refused to admit her. She came back after some first aid but the condition of her eye deteriorated quite fast. By the time she delivered her baby, she had lost her eyesight in the left eye. She continues to work like that.

While money is an issue, the other factor is the loss of daily wages if they had to take a leave to see a doctor or even recover. Any loss of wages will make it worse for these families who are already living hand to mouth. Most of the cane cutters we met were uninformed about the labour registrations and so had never registered their names. This meant that they have always remained outside of the ambit of any social security net that they government might have for them.

The cutters, who migrate for almost six months every year to work in fields, have no health or education benefits they can avail in their place of destination. And neither do they have access to clean drinking water. Heck, they don’t even get the proper wages! While we gear up to celebrate 75 years of independence, the sugarcane workers do not have their basic fundamental rights in place. And something needs to be done.


Oxfam India under “ensuring rights, entitlements and dignity of informal sector workers” is working on “responsible supply chain” with special focus on tea and sugar supply chain. The main aim has been to influence the private sector and government to ensure the rights of mainly the unorganised workers in the supply chain.

In Maharashtra, Oxfam India is working in the districts of Beed, Osmanabad and Ahmednagar from where almost a million sugarcane cutters migrate every year for cane cutting to various other parts of Maharastra, Karnataka and Gujarat. Oxfam India’s 2019 research Human Cost of Sugar brought out grave issues of human rights violations in the sugar supply chain that included low wages, adverse working conditions, exploitation by labour contractors, and untimely payment of wages. Inaccessibility of social protection schemes is another big challenge for the migrant workers.

It is in the above context that Oxfam India initiated a programme to highlight the human rights issues in the supply chain and influence both private sector (mainly mills, factories) and government to bring a change in the lives of sugarcane cutters who are otherwise invisible. The programme is in 60 villages of Beed, Osmanabad and Ahmednagar districts where we will be mobilising around 12,000 workers to ensure their basic rights of minimum wages, decent working conditions and linking them with social protection schemes. We are also working in the catchment of 15 factories to provide the migrant workers decent working conditions and minimum wages.  


Oxfam India is running a campaign in Osmanabad and Beed districts in Maharashtra to register sugarcane cutter migrant workers before they leave for other districts and neighbouring states for sugarcane cutting. This has been a first of its kind order from the Maharashtra government to register all its migrant workers. This will ensure that once registered the workers will have access to all social security benefits and government schemes.

Over six lakh workers in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra fan out to western parts of the State, and neighbouring Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh for six months between October to March to cut sugarcane. However, this massive movement of workers was not on government record and hence they were deprived of development schemes and social security.

📢Oxfam India is now on Telegram. Click here to join our Telegram channel and stay tuned to the latest updates and insights on social and development issues.    

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