This blog post has been chasing me and eluding me for days. Each time I look up at the billboards featuring giant versions of models hawking their celebrity for a new brand of lawn, I am reminded of my vengeful promise to all the women at work who buy luxury cotton. I promised them a post about the cotton pickers of Sindh and Punjab. I couldn't get around to it because the trip to Hala and Matiari and an opportunity to personally interview the cotton pickers never materialized. But on international women's day, I sit here immersed in teaching, grading, reviewing for exams, and the tinkle of glamor, bells, and cotton is often mind numbing. I wonder if Alice ever burrowed her way out of the rabbit hole? Did Iman Ali fall out of the Asim Jofa lawn billboard and her duped expression, and stumble onto the footpath and stagger on home? You see we all falter; but should we fail continuously and forever to see the big picture?
The big picture is terrifying. My sister asked me so is the solution that we stop buying cotton. Perhaps. But is it really ever as simple as consumer side boycotts? Its always more about finding ways of effective solidarity and organizing by understanding the economics of landless sharecroppers, in particular women, and the political, legal, social impediments to unionizing, rather than buying less. And never as some capitalist women suggest - buying more. Unless there are serious changes in rural land ownership, improvements in education, and recognition of informal worker rights - keeping the mill running by consuming is not the solution but a rather frighteningly gluttonous evasion of guilt.
According to the research done by Karin Astrid Siegmann and Nazima Shaheen (1), most cotton pickers are women. About 2 million of them each year come out to do this work. About 15% of cultivated land in Pakistan is used for growing cotton. (See Pakistan's cotton belt in map below)
They are also the least empowered workers in the country, and this stems from what the authors call a "triple informalisation" as seasonal, contract, and piece rate workers. Their wages are de-linked from the price of cotton an they are paid by the maund. A maund is one day's work by some estimates and earns them about Rs. 40 a day. According to the Agricultural Prices Commission of Pakistan in 2004, the average picking rate is Rs. 85 and Rs. 80 in Punjab and Sindh. (2) "At the peak of the 2005-06 season, pickers reported that they started picking around 5 to 6 am and continued to work until 4 to 5 pm in the afternoon," a 12 hour work day.
According to the SDPI and the WFP, the cotton growing districts of Punjab are at the bottom of the provincial ranking of female literacy. And women workers are often not able to confirm the weight of the cotton they picked or generally exercise and assert their rights.
The work is seasonal of-course and runs in 3 to 5 waves between August and February; the women and girls are on "contract", and do not have employee status and any of the consequent protections of labor law or social security. Women cotton pickers work in groups but are not members of unions that would organize for their rights. Indeed the law forbids both categories, agricultural workers and contract employees, from forming official unions that would impose collective pressure on the growers and force them to pay better and use less pesticide.
Horrifyingly thus they have no hope to be compensated if they acquire skin disease and cancer. Siegmann and Shaheen's article continues that 80% of the total pesticides consumed in Pakistan are used for the protection of the cotton crop during its growing period from July to October. Cotton pickers are likely to contract skin disease and cancer. They do not have access to medical care; they are not informed about the health perils of working in cotton fields, and even if they were informed, it is doubtful they would have a real choice given their generally low socio economic status and a lack of alternatives. When businesses and governments collude and decide to liberalize trade and lower the price of pesticides, the people most acutely affected by pesticide use are obviously not part of the discussion.
Silently they suffer. Ruthlessly landowners and industrialists race to the bottom. Obliviously we consume.
A lawn suit bought at Gul Ahmed for Rs. 4,000 could equal 100 working days of a woman in rural Sindh. Add to that her malnutrition, lack of education and social safety nets, and exposure to pesticide. Add to that the contamination in food and water and how that affects the health and prospects of even the children.
It's not lawn, it's blood cotton.
1) Karin Astrid Siegmann and Nazima Shaheen: Weakest Link in the Textile chain: Pakistani Cotton Pickers; Bitter Harvest. The Indian Journal of Labour Economics, Vol. 51, No. 4, 200
2) Recently the price of cotton has risen considerably to Rs. 11,000 per maund. See http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2011\01\21\story_21-1-2011_pg5_9
In 2010 it peaked at Rs, 7,000 per maund. Siegmann and Shaheen say that: "At the national level, a 20 % increase in cotton prices causes poverty among all cotton-producing households to fall from 40 per cent to 28 %. I do not know of any studies showing that this unprecedented rise in the price of cotton has alleviated poverty in any meaningful manner, or helped women in any way.