Regional Exchange of Seasonal Women Laborers
Labor scarcity in the mungbean harvesting season is becoming a big problem for smallholder farmers in the Yangon region in Myanmar, while job opportunities in the Magway region in the central dry zone are scarce too. Two Regional Farmer Development Associations (RFDAs) collaborated to facilitate a ‘Labor Exchange’, wherein 201 laborers from 12 villages in Magway will come to Yangon, under the conditions of transparent and decent working circumstances.
In the townships of Khayan and Thonegwa in the Yangon Region in Myanmar, farmers patiently wait for their mungbean crop to ripen. Harvesting time is near. As they prepare for the busy days of bringing in the crop, in the back of their minds a recurring concern is: “Will I get enough female laborers this year to bring in the crop?” More than 500 kilometers away in the Magway region, the dry months at the end of the winter season are becoming steadily hotter. Many laborers are looking for additional ways of earning an income: there are hardly any crops to harvest at this moment so perhaps it is better to find work elsewhere. However, this brings uncertainty and doubt: where is the best place for them to go, and is it fair and safely organized?
Trust Between Farmers and Laborers
Mung bean is the main cash crop for farmers in Khayan and Thonegwa townships. In order to be able to get a higher price and access to the premium market, quality needs to be produced and mung beans need to be free of chemical residues. This need to assure quality as well as quantity is becoming very important for farmers. Here, the role of women seasonal laborers, particularly during the harvesting period, is essential.
Farmers rely on women laborers for hand picking because the bean is harvested in three moments. The first is when the best and ripest bean pods are taken from the plant. At this time, the other pods are not yet ripe and will be collected a few days later when they ripen. In some circumstances where there is a shortage of labor or if laborers are not paid well enough, the process becomes hurried or not well performed. The expectation is that the quality of mung bean will increase if there is mutual trust and respect between farmers and laborers.
Scarcity of Labor
Scarcity of labor is becoming a common problem in both townships due to several reasons: many laborers are only needed for a short time, while many female laborers in the Yangon region are otherwise preoccupied in garment factories, for instance. Farmers increasingly need to search and pay more in order to get enough laborers at the right time for harvesting. This can lead to more laborers from other regions being brought in.
Two RFDAs may have found a solution to labor scarcity that benefits both regions and both groups. Together with ICCO Cooperation and Network Activities Group through the Pulses, People, Planet and Profit (P4) project, a ‘labor exchange’ was organized. This exchange brings together 201 laborers from 12 villages in the Magway region to Yangon region for the harvesting period. To create a good working environment for all, the P4 project organizes a series of meetings among all key stakeholders, especially farmers and labor-in-charges, to build win-win situations based on decent job principles for laborers. By doing so, the quality of crop is expected to be enhanced, and the work safety and satisfaction of laborers will also be improved.
From the farmer’s (RFDA) side, they will:
- Pay the highest price for hand picking.
- Provide shelter, drinking water, toilets and fire wood for cooking.
- Pay 30,000 MMK as advance payment for each laborer’s travel costs.
- In the case of a family emergency, pay all of its labor charges.
- Ensure that there is enough labor for at least 1 month working days.
- Prioritize harvesting Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) farms.
- Pay for one trip costs for laborers.
- Not force laborers work when one is sick.
The laborers will:
- Have to work for at least one month.
- Have to pick the mature pods and carefully separate the stem and leaves.
- Not disturb other workers while they are in the field (do not quarrel, drink alcohol).
- Not be allowed to work if they are children under 15 or are school aged boys/girls.
- Have to be grouped with a selected leader. Group sizes may range between 9 to 25 members.
- Have laborers-in-charge to ensure that sick individuals are not made to work.
- Have to live separately if they come together for work if it is difficult to provide suitable accommodations for a couple.
A complaints mechanism is also being developed with the key principle that the RFDA is responsible for solving the problems and complaints together with laborers-in-charge and farmers, particularly regarding shelter, fire wood, toilets and water. Additionally, if a party breaks the agreement, the RFDA together with the labor group leaders have to take action in accordance with the agreement.
ICCO project staff made a monitoring visit to the P4 project villages in which the groups of labourers from the Labour Exchange are working. During lunch, a group of 10 labourers (5 male, 5 female – a number of them are them husband and wife) described their working conditions and reflected on the agreements made between farmers and labourers. They stated that almost all employers (farmers) provide what they have committed to labour-in charges at meetings. For example, we have seen that farmers provide shelter, rice and other vegetables, drinking water the same as the farmers’ drinking water, and firewood for cooking. Also, farmers are organising it in such a way that the labourers are able to get continuous work. On the other hand, labour sides, labourers are trying their best to collect and sort the quality mung bean at harvesting and pay more attention not to mix with leaves and pods.