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Changing Terms and Conditions of Employment of Agricultural Labourers in West Bengal

The findings of a survey on hired rural agricultural labour contracts in three sets of villages in West Bengal, each at different stages of economic development, throw light on the relative importance of different categories of employment. The survey reveals the heterogeneity of labour contracts even within the same region and points out that the group labour system is gaining popularity among medium and large size farmers.

SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 12, 200873Changing Terms and Conditions of Employment of Agricultural Labourers in West BengalRathindra Nath PramanikIn agriculture, the terms and conditions of contracts between the employer and employee being oral and informal, they increase the complexity of labour relations. Generally, the dominant parties (employers) set the patterns as well as the terms and conditions of employment of labour and exploit the weaker parties (labourers). The situation has now changed to some extent, and the rural labourers too are able to considerably influ-ence the terms and conditions in the labour market, as employers are smallholders and unorganised. 1 IntroductionThe employer-labour relationship is not uniform across regions; it varies from region to region and even within the same region. The employer-employee relationships differ because of a combination of attributes such as: (i) duration of contracts: day, month, season, period of a particular operation, year, etc; (ii) basis of payment: hourly, daily, piece rate, product share, etc; (iii) frequency of payment: day, month, year, several irregular instalments during the year, bonus during festivals, etc; (iv)mode of payment: cash, kind and their different combinations like meals, snacks, etc; (v) the degree to which work obligations, and hours of work are specified or are left unspecified; (vi) interlink-ing age with certain other contracts with the employer either in credit or land relations or in employment of other members of the labourers’ family on the same employer’s farm; and (vii) freedom to work for different employers: full freedom, total absence of such freedom, conditional or restricted freedom, etc. Different combination of these attributes would determine the nature of employment and wage rates of agricultural labourers [Bardhan and Rudra 1980]. In this paper an attempt has been made to discuss the terms and conditions of employment of agricultural labourers in rural West Bengal, based on a survey of three sets of villages.The study is based on intensive field investigation done in three sets of diverse villages (highly developed, moderately developed and least developed villages) of Uttar Dinajpur district in 2005-06. The analysis is mainly based on 180 agricultural labour households from the categories of landless agricultural labourers and marginal farmers-cum-agricultural labourers. The data was collected by personal interviews during field-work,through a structured questionnaire and informal discussions with many employers and labour households in the sample areas. The terms and conditions of employment of agricultural labourers vary according to the type of labour employment. The Rathindra Nath Pramanik (pramanik_1972@rediffmail.com) teaches economics at PalliCharcha Kendra Visva-Bharati Sriniketan, West Bengal.The findings of a survey on hired rural agricultural labour contracts in three sets of villages in West Bengal, each at different stages of economic development, throw light on the relative importance of different categories of employment. The survey reveals the heterogeneity of labour contracts even within the same region and points out that the group labour system is gaining popularity among medium and large size farmers.
SPECIAL ARTICLEapril 12, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly74various agricultural Labour Enquiry Reports simply make the distinction between casual and attached agricultural labourers. Subsequently, several other authors like Bardhan and Rudra (1980) classified agricultural labourers in West Bengal into five categories. (i) totally unattached labourers (casual labourers); (ii) totally attached labourers (or farm servants); (iii) semi-attached labourers (type-1) – they are attached to an employer for part of the year, but for the major part of the year they have the freedom to work for other employers; (iv) semi-attached labourers (type-2) – they are obliged to work for the employer whenever called for the stipulated numbers of days in a stipulated period; and (v) semi-attached labourers (type-3) – theyareobligedtoworkfor the employer whenever called for an unstipulated number of days over an indefinite period.2 TypeofEmployment Under changing conditions of employer-employee relationships due to the change in the mode of production process, this type of classification is not sufficient to depict the whole range of labour relations in agriculture. On the basis of data collected in the field survey and with the existing literature, the following classification of agricultural labourers was arrived at and seems more useful in explaining the employer-employee relation in agriculture. These are (i) fully attached labourers (annual farm servants); (ii) semi-attached labourers; (iii) casual day labourers; (iv) casual group labourers; and (v) marginal farmers-cum-agricultural labourers.The terms and conditions of employment of agricultural labourers vary across the categories of agricultural labourers. Different categories of agricultural labourers are employed under different terms and conditions with the same employers or different employers. We now discuss the terms and conditionsof employment of each category of agricultural labourers.2.1 Terms and ConditionsThe following are the terms and conditions of the contract.Fully Attached Labourers (or Annual Farm Servants):By annual “farm servant” we mean a labourer who is tied to his employer usually for a duration of one year, although sometimes employed for more than the one-year contract due to the good personal relations between the labourer and employer or for some other reasons. Generally, unmarried labourers are employed as annual farm servants because after marriage the family burden of labourers increases and they become busy with the maintenance of their family. In the area of this study, fully attached labourers are known as “kamail” or “chakar”. Previously the system of employment of kamail (fully attached labourer or annual farm servant) was widely prevalent in this district. Generally, the landlord or “jotedars” employed kamail to perform agricultural activities. The relationship between the chakar or kamail and jotedar or employer is one of patron-client. They always respect their employer as a master.Theirworkisnot solely confined to agricultural opera-tions. They are at times also engaged in domestic work like cleaning the house, marketing, feedingthelivestock,etc.During the lean season they sometimes perform the job of “maidser-vants”. Such contracts of annual farm servants with their masters ensure them some degree of continuity and regularity of employment. They receive wages both in kind and cash. They take two meals and snacks with employers everyday and their annual remuneration ranged from Rs 6,000 to Rs 10,000 depending on age and the capabilities to do the work. They receive their payments partly at the end of the year and partlyinirregularinstalments spread over the year. During festivals (Durga puja and Dol utsav) they get some kind of bonus in the form of cash or clothes like shirts, pants or trousers. When the annual farm servants enter into a contract withtheiremployer, they lose their freedom to engage themselvesinany other activity, even if they are ensured of additional income. So there is an element of bondage in their relationwith their employer. But bonded labour as such does not exist in West Bengal.In Uttar Dinajpur district, the annual farm servant is now hardly found. We surveyed 180 agricultural labour households; but did not find any annual farm servant. The practice of employ-ing annual farm servants has been declining over the years. There are some reasons for this. Firstly, after the introduction of land ceiling legislations in West Bengal, a majority of the farmers in the rural areas have become small and marginal farmers, and land is subdivided and fragmented further and further with the passing of each generation due to the existence of the laws of inheritance. Small and marginal farmers are not in a position to employ permanent labourers due to the small size of holdings. So the demand for permanent labour decreases with the decline in the size of holding. Farmers prefer to cultivate their land with the help of casual day labourers or group labourers. Similarly, labourers are also not willing to work under long-term contracts under the same employer because of the element of bondage involved in it. Semi-attached Labourers: A semi-attached labourer may be defined as a person who has some continuity of association with a particular employer for a few days or months. He has the freedom to work for other employers for the major part of the year. Semi-attached labourers can be divided into two catego-ries on the basis of the duration of the contract and freedom of choice of employers. The first category of semi-attached labou-rers has no freedom to work for other employers during the contract period and they are employed for a month or a fewmonths during the busy agricultural seasons. The wage rate of such labourers is generally higher than the ruling market wage rate and they are paid daily or weekly or monthly, both in cash and kind.The second category of semi-attached labourers enjoys more freedom to work for other employers as compared to the first category. They are free to work for other employers when they do not have work with their present employer. They are paid wages in both cash and kind on a daily or weekly basis. But their wages are slightly lower than the market wage rate (Table 3, p76).They are also known as tied labourers in the Uttar Dinajpur district.
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 12, 200875In our field study we found only 15 semi-attached labourers out of 180 agricultural labourer households. Five labourers fall under the first category and 10 labourers fall under the second category of semi-attachment. In the highly developed villages, both the first and second categories of attached labourers are found. But in the moderately and least developed villages, only the second category of attachmentis found (Table 1). Thorner (1957) has described the “beck and call” relationship of our semi-attached labour of type-2 as unfree. He sug-gested that quite often long-term outstanding loans, which the labourer is not in a position to repay, bind him (or his family members) tothe employers in such a relationship. In our sample villages, none of the labourers reported hereditary debt or outstanding debt incurred by the labourer as a basis for his attachment to the employer (Table 2). But 20 per cent of the semi-attached labourers did report periodically taking consumption loans or wage advances from the employer as the basis of their attachment. In the highly and moderately developed villages, some labourers reported that consumption loans or wage advances taken from the employer is the basis of attachment to the employer. But in least developed blocks, no labourer reportedperiodically taking consumption loans or wage advances from the employer as the basis of attachment. They take consumption loans from their employer during difficult periods. They repaid their consumption loans by working at their employer’s house. One of the important motivations of the lender-employer in giving such loans is to secure labour services for the peak season. Besides, in such cases he saves recruitment costs. Over the years, the economic condition of farmers deteriorates because of low production, low prices of agricultural commodities and high cost of production. As a result, they lose the power to give consumption loans or wage advances to their labourers gradually. Sometimes the labourer takes consumption loans or wage advances from their employer but does not repay the loan to the employer. Such violation of credit contract from the labourer’s side frequently occurs in the study area. They simply go to work for other employers without repaying loans taken from the preceding employer cum creditor. Land IncentivesThe allotment of land is another basis for semi-attachment. Generally, the employer allots a tiny piece of land to the labourer who cultivates it with the help of the employer’s bullock and plough and receives the total or a fraction of crop output. He sometimes even receives other kinds of help from the employer, e g, in the form of supplies of seeds and fertilisers. In exchange, the labourer gets committed to work for the employer at whatever time that might suit the latter. In our sample villages, only 26.67 per cent of the semi-attached labourers reported that land was allotted to them as the basis of their attachment. In the least developed villages there was no report that land was allotted to the labourers on the basis of their attachment. This is because the size of the holding of the farmers is declining over the year and as a result they are not in a position to lease out their land to the labourers on the basis of share of crop by supplying bullocks and plough and seed, fertilisers and pesticides. Secondly, the employers do not lease out their land due to the risk of recording the names of labourers as a sharecropper on their land.The most important basis of attachment in our sample villages is to secure the work of harvesting of paddy operation. Out of the different agricultural activities, harvesting of paddy is the highest-paid activity (Table 3). So to secure the work of harvest-ing of paddy from a particular employer, labourers are generally attached to that employer for the whole year. In our survey 40 per cent of semi-attached labourers reported securing the work of harvesting of paddy as the basis of their attachment. But most of them in the moderately and least developed villages reported that even though they sometimes work for less than the ruling market wage rate, they get the work of harvesting paddy (aman and boro), which is more profitable for them as compared to other kinds of work. The remaining 13.33 per cent reported that they have no special reason for their attachment. Casual Day Labourers: By a casual day labourer, we mean, a person who enters into an agreement or contract with a particu-lar employer for a single day at a time. The contract for one day with one employer will not influence the contract with another employer on another day. He may contract with another employer for another day. He has the freedom to negotiate different contract for different days with different employers. The working hours in all villages of the study area generally vary between six to seven hours for ordinary jobs with an interval forlunch(Table 3). Sometimes, workers take lunch at the worksite due to heavy pressure of work. In order to reduce the moral hazard problems of workers, employers or their family members including the female members work along with their workers. Sometimes, if the employer is not in a position to work, he stays near the worksite and closely watches the workers so that there is no delinquency and workers work properly. Thus supervision problems are likely to be reduced not only when the ratio of family labour to hired labour is higher, but also when hired labourers work side by side with employers in the field.Table 1: Number of Semi-Attached Labourers (Selected Villages of Uttar Dinajpur District)Villages CategoryTotal Semi-Attached Type-1Type-2 Highly developed 5 3 8 (Delwalpur, Malan)Moderately developed – 4 4 (Tilna, Nakol)Least developed – 3 3 (Jagatagaon, Dharampur)All 5 1015Source: Field Survey by author.Table 2: Basis of Attachment of Semi-Attached LabourersVillages Respondents Basis of Attachment (Number of Persons) Numbers Hereditary/ Consumption Repayment Allotment Securing No in the Outstanding Loan or of Loan by of Land Work of Attachment Sample Debt Wage Labour at Harvesting Advances Lower than of Paddy Market Wage RateHighly developed 8 0 2 0 3 1 2 (Delwalpur, Malan)Moderately developed 4 0 1 0 1 2 0 (Tilna, Nakol) Least developed 3 0 0 0 0 3 0 (Jagatagaon, Dharampur)Total 150 3 0 4 6 2 in % (100.00) (20.00) (26.67) (40.00) (13.33)Source: Own Field Survey.
SPECIAL ARTICLEapril 12, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly76The most important wage system for casual day labourers found to be prevalent in the villages of this study, is the daily wage rate – it is a time rate for a workday which is usually well defined. On the time rate basis, a labourer is not only paid wages both in cash and kind or only in cash at the end of the day’s work, but he may also take his wage as an advance payment. However, the share of the kind component in total wages has become marginal (30 per cent) as shown in Table 3. The wage rate of a casual day labourer in the study area is generally Rs 28 per day with one meal and one tiffin. He enjoys more freedom to choose the employer and work more freely as compared to semi-attached labourers and fully attached labourers. The casualisation of agricultural labourers has increased over the years because the farmers prefer more casual day labourers as compared to semi-attached and fully attached labourers. Similarly labourers also prefer to work as casual labourers as compared to semi-attached or fully attached labourers because they enjoy more freedom… In the area, of this study the casual day labourer is known as “jan” or “janmajoor”. The number of casual day labourers is more in the moderately and least developed blocks as compared to highly developed blocks (Table 5, p 77).During the peak period, the demand for labour is very high in all the blocks. So in order to meet the demand for labour in the peak period, employers try to ensure the labour services of labou-rers through the provision of consumption loan in the lean period. Thus tying of labour services with consumption credit, tenancy or any other form of patronage are the various devices resorted to by employers to reduce supervision cost and the variety of risks in production by ensuring timely supply of labour. Our study results corroborate the study made by some other scholars [like Bardhan 1979]. But linkage of labour services with consumption credit is declining in the villages of our study area because of violation of creditcontractson the part of the labourers. Group Labourers: We mean, labourers who form groups with equal able-bodied persons to work on a piece rate basis. Piece rates are generally feasible where worker specific output is easily measurable in both quantitative and qualitative terms as in harvesting of grains. In other operations time rates are preferred. But if the recruitment cost of labour is too high and there are other problems of labour, the employer may prefer paying on a piece rate even in those operations where worker specific output is not properly measurable [Sarap 1991]. This method of payment for agricultural labour has been spreading rapidly and is used for major agricultural operations such as transplanting, weeding, harvesting and threshing that involve more labour. There are no fixed working hours for them. They can extend the normal working hours to complete the particular piece of work. The reported average working day, in the surveyed villages, varies between six to seven hours (Table 3). They work according to their will. So they enjoy much more freedom as compared to other categories of labourers. In the villages of our study, they are known as ‘chuktiar’. They work under contract arrangement, called ‘thicka’.Generally, group labourers work on contractual basis for trans-plantation of paddy, weeding of paddy, jute and harvesting of jute, pulses, etc. For example, for transplantation of paddy (aman), the group labourers are paid wages of Rs 206 to Rs 212.5 per bigha (Table 4). In the villages surveyed, the work of harvest-ing and threshing of paddy is done on share rate basis. This is known as the ‘dini’ system. Under this system, group labourers are known as ‘diniar’. The crop shares of paddy (aman) varies from one-fifth to one-sixth, and for ‘boro’ paddy, it is around one-fourth to one-fifth of what they harvested and threshed (Table 4). Each group has a group leader who searches for work and bargains with the employers. He has control over the whole group’s work. Each group is formed with four to 12 labourers depending upon the agricultural operations (Table 4). Gener-ally, the leader of the group is an experienced elderly person and he also participates in work along with the other workers. But he does not get any additional wage. All members, both male and female, get equal wages. The income of the group labourers is higher as compared to other categoriesoflabourers. In highly developed villages, most of the agricultural activities areperformed by the group labourers. Generally, those who are physically weak and not fit for group activities work as casual day labourers. In highly developed villages, over the years, the work done by casual day labourer has been declining. The cost of supervision of work done by group labourers is lower as compared to casual day labourers. So the farmers prefer to get more work done by group labourers as compared to casual labourers.The farmer-employers prefer group labour because through employment of group labour it is possible to maintain the Table 4: Operation Specific Wage Payments to Casual Group LabourerOperations Size of Required Unit Highly Developed Moderately Least Developed EachMan-daysVillagesDevelopedVillages GroupPerBigha(Delwalpur,Villages(Jagatagaon, (8 hours) Malan) (Tilna, Nakol) Dharampur) Transplantations: Aman paddy (traditional) 6-7 4-5 Rs/bigha 212.5 206 211Boro paddy (HYV) 7-8 5-6 Rs/bigha 248 243 247.5Weeding: Aman paddy 4-5 3-4 Rs/bigha 147.5 143.5 146.5(traditional) Boro paddy (HYV) 5-6 4-5 Rs/bigha 192.5 183 191Jute 4-5 5-6 Rs/bigha237.5 228 236.5Harvesting, threshing and storing: Aman paddy 10-11 8-9 Share of product 1/5th 1/6th 1/5th(traditional) Boro paddy (HYV) 11-12 10-11 Share of product 1/4th 1/5th 1/4thHarvesting of jute 7-8 3-4 Rs/bigha 150.5 143.5 150.5One bigha = 33 decimale, HYV = high yield variety.Source: Field Survey.Table 3: Some Features of Wage Payments of Agricultural LabourersLabour Category Working Mode of Wage Payment Wage Rate Basis of Hour (in Percentage) Per Day (8 Hours) Payment (hrs/per day) Cash Kind Cash Kind (in Rs)Fully attached 9-10 53 47 20 Two meals, snacks Yearly basis andclothingSemi-attached 7-8 554522Two meals Monthly/ (type-1) and snacks weekly basisSemi-attached 7-8 70 31 25 One meal and one Weekly/daily (type-2) snack or 1.25 kg of rice rate basisCasual (day) 6-7 70 30 28 One meal and one Time rate basis snack or 1.25 kg of riceCasual (group) 6-7 100 100 42 8-10 kgs paddy Piece rate Share rate basisMarginal farmer-cum-6-7 70 30 28 One meal and one Time rate basis agricultural snack or 1.25 kg of rice Source: Field Survey by author.

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