A few thousand sugarcane harvest labourers across various factories on Sunday refused to continue working in the fields to protest the failure of their employers to provide them masks and other protective measures against COVID-19.
At Karad’s Krishna cooperative sugar mill in Satara, following the labourers’ decision not to work, they were released and operations wound down, though the harvest workers will continue to live in the fields until the 21-day lockdown period ends.
On Friday, following complaints from workers’ representatives and leaders from Beed district that accounts for more than 5 lakh cane harvest workers, Maharashtra Sugar Commissioner Sourabh Rao issued orders to sugar mills to look after the workers’ food requirements and also to provide them masks and hand sanitisers and ensure social distancing, measures that workers called impractical and unrealistic.
“Some leaders made a call to cane harvest workers not to continue working in the absence of these precautionary measures, and at Krishna mill, they decided to close operations,” said Deepak Nagargoje, who runs Shantivan in Beed’s Arvi village, a school and residential facility for children of cane labourers.
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According to sources, several workers refused to continue working near the factories in Islampur and Karad.
Mohan Jadhav of the CITU-affiliated Oos Todni Va Vahatuk Kamgaar Sanghatana said workers had been reluctant to continue operations through the week and on Sunday, at several places, some refused to work. “In his address to the people on Sunday, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray also specifically asked sugar factory owners to look after the cane-cutters’ welfare. That would have emboldened many to demand the protective measures mandated by the order issued on Friday,” Jadhav said.
State government officials also confirmed that workers have begun to demand protective measures in order to continue working.
On Saturday, Social Justice Minister Dhananjay Munde, who represents Parli in Beed, made an appeal to cane harvesters not to attempt a journey back to their villages in order to protect their health and that of those in their native villages. “Your living, food, health and your security arrangements will be made by the factories,” he announced.
Although harvesters decided to stop work, they will not be allowed to leave the districts. “We have asked them to be isolated in schools or other government buildings for the next 14 days. The district administration has been asked to provide them ration and also to look after their health,” said a state official.
The strike poses a new challenge for the state government, as around 15 lakh tonnes of cane still remain to be harvested. Senior officials of the state cooperatives department said that in case the cane remains unharvested, the government would have to compensate the farmers, for which, a sum of about Rs 200 crore could be needed.
A senior cooperative miller from Kolhapur said the impact of the strike would be small as the crushing season is at its fag end. At Sahyadri, the mill managed by Cooperation Minister Balasaheb Patil, around 3 lakh tonnes of cane are to be harvested.
At the three units of Rajarambapu Patil Cooperative sugar mill managed by senior Minister Jayant Patil and Someshwar mill in Pune district, substantial amount of cane still to be harvested.
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