Learning Center
Plans & pricing Sign in
Sign Out



Picking Cotton, Collecting Pains

More Info

(Socio-economic Condition of Cotton Picking Women in South Punjab)

                  Researcher: Amjad Nazeer

               Oxfam GB, Islamabad (Pakistan)

                       (October 24, 2012)


Executive Summary………………………………………………………….……….……...…2

The Euphoria of Agri-economy: ……………………………………………...….…………..7

Higher Yield - Between Myth and Reality: ..........................................................................................8

The Poison Business: ………………………………….……………………………………….9

Dealing in Pesticides: ….…………………………………………………………………......10

Socio-Economic Condition of Cotton Pickers: …………………………………………....11

Cotton Picking and Extended Agri-tasks: …………………………………….……..…….18

Bargaining Vulnerabilities: ………………………………………………………………….19

Clever Calculations to Rob off Picker’s Labour: ……………………..…….…………..…20

Picking Cotton in Poisonous Fields:…………………………………..…………..…..……23

Growers and Dealers attitude towards Pickers: …………………………..………..……..27

Labour Laws and Cotton Pickers: ……………………………………………………..……29

Concluding Thoughts and Recommendations: …………………..…….….………..…….29

End Notes and references: ………………………………………..……………….…………34

Bibliography: …………………………………………………….……………….………..…36

                                Executive Summary

Approximately, seven million women are engaged in cotton picking across Pakistan.
More or less, one third of them come from South Punjab. The incidence of poverty in
rural South Punjab is estimated to be the highest after Baluchistan and parts of Sindh,
with women’s condition much worse than men. Poverty and vulnerability of the cotton
picking women speaks volumes about that.

Women laborers usually start picking cotton from a very early age. For traditional
variety, they were paid one-twentieth share of their pick. Picking modified breed,
however, is monetized but the amount of wages is terribly low and highly fluctuates
within and across the region. Paid against quantity not quality, tinkering and tampering
to rob off women’s produce is very common. Conventionalized and other deductions
are part of the day to day business. Tilting scales, underpayment, deliberate
miscalculations and delayed imbursement of wage is a matter routine. Non-literacy and
gendered discriminations supplement their vulnerability. Unconvincing and
unjustified, but farmers, retailers, dealers and middlemen keep extending their own
arguments based on market measures. In fact, a tight ring of oppression and abuse
operates around to exploit women’s invaluable labour. Set aside its own energy and
trade crisis, Cotton and Textile Industry thrives on women’s labour. The so called free
market and free labour is culpable for massive inadequacies in the sector.

Despite elaborate statements, women do not freely pick and chose their fields of cotton
and prices to work at. Limited mobility, religious and other socio-cultural constrains
compel them to work in select fields with certain landlords at whatever wages they
offer. Other economic compulsions like collecting fodder, fuel-wood and tendering
livestock holds them back to work with landlords in the vicinity year in and year out.
Besides picking cotton, hoeing, seedling, sapling, weeding, thinning, collecting and

thrashing are also part of women’s agriculture responsibilities without substantial
economic benefits. Therefore, bargaining for better wages to pick cotton becomes
practically impossible. Never defined as bonded or slave labour the arrangement, in
nutshell, is no less cruel than that.

As it is vivid, health hazards to cotton picking women are never gender-neutral.
Excessive work and exposure to toxic chemicals renders them vulnerable to chronic
headaches, nausea, sickness, respiratory contractions and skin irritations. Cuts and
bruises that women frequently receive in picking multiply the likelihood of pesticides
transfusion into their blood. More specifically, the pesticides poison cause erythrocyte
cholinesterase and lowered plasma cholinesterase of severe or moderate intensity.
Consecutive exposure to pesticides, in whatever form, takes the diseases’ intensity to
the dangerous level. Cough, itching, urticaria, deramal blisters, vertigo, respiratory
disorder, sneezing, rhinitis, dizziness and muscular pain are common symptoms
observed in women in picking season. Chronic fungal and corneal ulcers are also
reported quite frequently. Perforation or thinning of cornea, if not properly treated,
leads to eyeball-collapsing, blindness and/or corneal opacities. Most of the picking
women are not familiar to safety measures, equipment or any such thing to minimize or
resist the effects of poison. Increased frequency of late sprays supplements further
harms to their health.

Except apparent symptoms like skin rashes, cough or headaches, men appear to be
unaware of the dangerous effects of cotton picking to women like reproductive
complications, breast cancer, blindness and chronic ulcers etc. Oblivious to women’s
hard work, fatigue and intensive engagement in cotton picking and other agriculture
tasks, they remain busy in their own work or enjoyable outdoor. Apart from social
norms, abject poverty does not allow them to adopt even the simplest precautionary
measures known or easily adaptable.

Cotton, the so called white gold, is the largest contributing factor in the agri-economy of
Pakistan that accounts for almost half the labour and one-fourth of our national income.
Boosting up agricultural production, especially cotton, remains an overall thrust of our
national growth and national economy. Therefore, high-intensity cropping and higher
yield continue to be the producer’s priority. Women’s labour, the key contributing
factor in agriculture and cotton production in particular, is seldom acknowledged in
whole system.

The most valuable role of collecting and cleaning cotton is also played by women.
Ironically, farmers, industry and agriculture institutions all desire them to do their job
keenly, effectively and efficiently, without considering the painful circumstances they
work in, without ensuring fair wages, adequate training and provision of equipment
and precautionary measures.

Characterized with a range of problems, save higher yield, transgenically improvised
bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton has beset agriculture sector of Pakistan. South Punjab
throws in 65% of Bt produce in the country. Swiftly developing pest-resistance and
corrupting non-transgenic flora, it is brutally invading biodiversity and food security all

Popular claims of Bt’s higher yield, the major commercial attraction, are rarely
substantiated on ground. Factual figures place its’ production much lower with
exorbitantly high input and irrigation cost. Susceptible to pests and problems, by and
large, three-fourth of all pesticides is sprinkled on Bt alone. Developing countries,
Pakistan on top, use one-fifth of all pesticides produced in the world. Pesticides devour
more than half the farmer’s expense and its frequency is constantly on the rise.

Bt production in the country has reached a threshold, where its per-unit-yield
plummets, quality goes down and the business turns uneconomical. Despite maniac
higher yield desire, more than two-thirds of the farmers get seriously depressed by
lower yield for one or another reason every year. Stamped as poisonous, our cotton and
textile (C&T) products fetch lesser prices in world market and much acclaimed benefits
already show signs of dwindling.

Pesticides and insecticides, heavily cherished by transgenic species, are ‘shattering
landscapes’, ‘stripping threads of organic kinship’, ‘uncoupling associations’,
‘bludgeoning earth, ‘ripping fabrics apart’ and ‘disrupting’ natural processes, otherwise
complex, mutually beneficial, balanced, interdependent and integrated. Fruits,
vegetables, cereals and water samples tested in cotton growing areas are found heavily
contaminated by multiple pesticides residues.

Mere enhancement of pickers’ wages, training and precautionary measures will not
help. A cautious, reasonable, ethical and ecologically sound management of nature and
biological pests control is important to be espoused. Between ecological equilibrium
and wild forces of nature like pests-assault and infestations, a middle ground to
preserve human future and facilitate nature is highly recommended.

Reversing the trends of degrading nature and augmenting poverty is not possible
without human- and nature- friendly methods of agriculture. Farmers knowledge about
pest and crop management and multi-cropping also needs to be updated. Increased
attention to livestock and food crops need to be paid. Less harmful techniques of higher
yields are out there or can be innovated. Center of Excellence in Molecular Biology
(CEMB) and National Agriculture Research Council (NARC) need to be empowered
and resourced for the purpose. Radical policy and practice reforms are now call of the

Effective implementation of Agriculture Pesticides Ordinance and Rules formulated in
1971 & 1973 is essential to stop farmers and corporates from frequent violation with
impunity. Food and Agriculture Regulation, adopted in 1965, essentially needs to be
amended to address the issue of pesticide residues. United Nations Food and
Agriculture Organization’s (FAOs) ‘International Code of Conduct on the Distribution
and Use of Pesticides’ discouraging agro-chemicals and promoting integrated pest
management, and National Environment Policy Measures (2005) need to be widely
disseminated and practiced. Besides that, Integrated Crop Management (ICM) and
Integrated Pest Management (IPM), involving a broad range of pre- and post-harvest
management practices developed by Pakistani experts should also be extended to the
farmers. Alternative progressive measures are already being adopted in certain other
developing countries.

Civil society, print and electronic media need to highlight poisonous effects of Bt and
women’s exploitation in the sector. Discouraging Bt and promoting alternatives is not
possible without effective state measures and coordinated efforts from NGOs,
independent institutions, experts and associated corporates.

Establishing a provincial and national body to measure and maintain ‘Minimum
Residue Level’ as recommended by World Health Organization (WHO), Food and
Agriculture Organizations (FAO) and other relevant institutions is a must. A regulatory
body, comprising on recognized and responsible agri- and health professionals be
developed to extend or prohibit the import of certain seeds and pesticides.

Suggested measures will not only save health of the cotton pickers rather protect whole
food chain from being contaminated. Minimum wage and other labour laws
recommended and partly adopted in formal sector must be extended to cotton picking
and other agriculture tasks. Periodical examination of women’s health, so long as the
menace is eliminated, must be ensured to protect them from chronic contaminations.

Provision of safety equipment and precautionary measures must be made a binding for
farmers and cotton industry before they hire women for the task.


The Euphoria of Agri-economy:

Cotton, the so called white gold, is the largest contributing factor in the agri-economy of
Pakistan. It accounts for almost half the labour and one-fourth of national income.
Grown on 3 million hectares with an annual turnover of 2 million tons, Pakistan is the
fourth largest cotton producer and second largest yarn exporting in the world. It also
feeds into textile, the largest industrial subsector of Pakistan’s economy. Cotton’s value
stands somewhere around 101,256 million rupees a year. Boosting up agriculture,
especially the cotton produce remains policy thrust of our national growth and
economy. Therefore, high-intensity cropping and higher-yield continue to be the
farmers’ top priorityi. In this whole phenomenon women’s contribution is rarely
acknowledged in the public and private sector.

Characterized with a range of problems, save higher yield, transgenically improvised
bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton has beset agriculture sector of Pakistan. The
Government of Pakistan has officially approved six varieties so much so that Sindh and
Punjab Seed Corporation themselves sell certain varieties of Bt. Sown in April-May and
harvested from August to December, it is commonly known as Amreekan Cotton in
Pakistan. Punjab is the largest cotton cultivating region whereas two-thirds of the whole
produce comes from South Punjab alone. Comprising on less than two hectares on
average, most farms in South Punjab concentrate only on Bt. For instance, about 100,000

small farmers and more than 60% of the farmland is occupied by cotton just in Multan
district. Monopolized by multinationals, storing or reusing its seed is legally
apprehensible. Corrupting non-transgenic flora and swiftly developing pest-resistance,
Bt is brutally invading biodiversity and food security in Pakistanii.

Higher Yield - Between Myth and Reality:

Popular claims of 40 to 50 mounds per acre are rarely substantiated on ground. In
reality, the figure stands around 20 to 25 mounds per acre with rapidly escalating input
and irrigation cost. Close to half of its bolls and flowers tumble down prematurely and
more than one-fourth are chomped up by bollworms. Heavily attacked by jessids,
thrips, aphids, mealybug, dustybug, leaf-rolling and several other pests and diseases, Bt
is posing unprecedented environmental, technical and economic challenges. Hit by
cotton leave curl virus (CLCV), bollworm, whitefly, our cotton crop has been a massive
failure more than once since 1990s. It has pushed the environment-friendly and less-
infested local or desi variety to the verge of extinction. The only stigma, experts and
farmers place on it, is its lower yield.

Susceptible to pests and problems, by and large 80% of all the pesticides are sprinkled
on Bt. Developing countries, Pakistan on top, use one fifth of all pesticides produced in
the world. Dribbling away USD300 millions every year pesticides devour more than
half of a farmer’s expenses. Its frequency has jumped from 3 to 4 in 1990s to 12 to 15 at
present ramming the process to a threshold where per-unit-yield is plummetting,
quality going down and production turns uneconomicaliii. Despite maniac tendencies of
securing higher yields, more than two-thirds of the farmers are seriously depressed
from one or another pest every yeariv. Drenched in poison, our cotton and textile (C&T)
products increasingly fetch lower prices in the world marketv and much acclaimed
economic benefits show signs of dwindling.

The author’s own interviews conducted in several districts of South Punjab validate
similar analyses. Not a single farmer appeared to be entirely satisfied with his profits or
produce. It’s a vicious circle of pesticides costs and unending desires for profits that
farmer is terrible trapped in. Aware of Bt’s substandard quality and associated
problems, most farmers grow desi for their own use. “If we need cotton for our own use, say
for some one’s marriage or domestic purposes, we grow local variety on a bigha or two. It is

softer without a poisonous content as it does not attract pests as does the Bt,” says Zawar
Hussain Shah, a middle income farmer from Khanewal1.

The Poison Business:

“Pesticides and insecticides, heavily cherished by transgenic species, are ‘shattering
landscapes’, ‘stripping threads of organic kinship’, ‘uncoupling ecological associations’,
‘bludgeoning earth, ‘ripping apart fabrics’ and ‘disrupting’ natural processes, otherwise
complex, mutually beneficial, balanced, interdependent and integrated” is the central
message of Rachel Carson’s seminal work, “Silent Spring” surfacing in the sixth decade
of last century. The subject was never as important for Pakistan as it is today. The law of
nature must not be defied with impunity, she argues. The ‘ecological web of life’ is
interconnected and symbiotic. Minor changes, like wholesale drenching of soil with
chemicals, rebound across time and space. Poisons and pesticides, in her views, are not
only harmful for humans but counter-effective as well. Developing resistance, upon
which cotton-pests posses a command, they kill plant-friendly organisms as well as
birds and animals. A cycle of infestation and counter resurgence of targeted species
begins by the slipshod application of pesticides.

Overly active especially in third world countries, chemical industries extort millions of
dollars from this business. Monsanto and other chemical industries reverberated
fiercely, as they respond to any such efforts today, against the Carson’s powerful
memorandum to respect the balance of nature and ecologyvi.

To decimate pests and locusts, pesticides business was initiated by the government of
Pakistan herself in the mid 1950s by importing several hundred tons of toxic chemicals.
Distributed through agriculture extension workers, Plant Protection Department was
responsible for the job for decades till the business was privatized in 1990s. To lure
farmers, it was heavily subsidized in the beginning and areal spray was free of charge.
Declining natural defense and complicating the problem, its’ consumption has risen
ever since inclining the import from 700 tons in the 1990s to 100,000 tons
(approximately) in the last decade, roughly costing 8 billion rupees every year.
Antagonized by a variety of poisons, natural foes of cotton pests have declined to less
than 10% at present. In near past, the government had to dump 2000 tons of expired
toxics, imported earlier by the Ministry of Agriculturevii.
    The field work in Khanewal was facilitated by Tahseen Raza from Damaan Development Foundation, Multan.

Fruits, vegetables, soil and water samples tested in cotton growing areas are found
contaminated by multiple pesticides residues. 70% of the water, 28.5% of fruits and 37%
vegetable samples exceed maximum residue limits (MRL) set by European Economic
Commission (EEC). All samples of top soils are contaminated with various levels of
pesticides residues. The cases of using poisons, only recommended for cotton, over
fruits and vegetables were also noticed. Grazing fodder from the same fields, milk and
meat of the livestock consumed by human are not immune from contamination. Cotton
seed processed for cooking oil is also polluted by pesticides. In fact the whole food
chain is contaminated by the ‘cocktail effects ‘of pesticides. Disastrous for human
health, even aquifers are getting contaminatedviii.

In Carson’s words, “for the first time in the history of the world even human beings are
subjected to the contact of chemicals from the moment of conception to their death”. If the
statement is absolutely true anywhere, it is here in cotton gowning areas of South

Dealing in Pesticides:

Most of the medium or small farmers have either limited or no idea about which poison
to purchase for what type of bugs or disease. Information readily available with them
mainly comes through a word of mouth, newspaper commercial, Agriculture
Department’s and Monsanto or Syngenta circulated literature (to those who are literate
enough) or provided by the pests dealers. Extension workers are also a source but their
visits are few and far between.

Pest dealers are poorly qualified to prescribe a poison. Knowledgeable of their
disqualification to sell the stuff, none of the ‘dealer’ was comfortable in talking with the
researcher despite taking them in confidence. Normally, they woo farmers to buy, what
earns better profits for them. If a farmer collects pesticides on credit, very common with
small farmers, he is compelled to buy whatever is available or recommended by the
dealer. Demanding popular pesticides is also common. Some of the experienced farmers
test a pesticide on part of their crop before asking for more. Most farmers, however, are
poorly qualified to determine the nature of infestation, appropriate time and frequency
of applying a pesticide.

Cotton picking women, excessively coming in contact with pesticides both in term of
time-span and intensity, are not familiar with an assortment of pesticides brands.
Obviously they fail to understand the difference between one or another bug or brand
of a poison. The nomenclature of pests or pesticides is completely alien to them. Not a
single cotton picker, at least to whom I spoke to, could utter the name of a pest, plague
or popularly used pesticide, they are repeatedly exposed to. Nevertheless, they do put
their own names like jooian (lice), makhyan (flies), tindryan (insects) or keryey (worms) to
the organisms swarming in cotton fields. “We keep hearing multiple names of cotton diseases
and medicines but fail to remember, said a group of women in Muddwalla, Alipur. “I knew a few
but none is coming to my mind at the moment” responded a woman in Sagwan, Chack
53M, Shujabad”. Most of them are convinced that it is men’s specialty for being very
technical or scientific things. However, all of them had a very clear idea that cotton
picking and pesticides is harmful to their health.

Socio-Economic Condition of Cotton Pickers:

It is the helpless hands of women underneath that actually bear the burden of
agriculture economy and vast business of cotton and textile. About 7 million women are
involved in cotton picking across Pakistan. Whereas one third of them, approximately 2
million women, pick early and late variety of cotton in South Punjab starting from the
middle of hot and humid August down to the chillingly frosty month of December.
After rural Baluchistan and parts of Sindh, the incidence of poverty in rural outskirts of
South Punjab is estimated to be the highest. A little less than half the population of this
region languishes through the terrible tragedies of poverty. Women’s poverty could
easily be projected to much higher a level than over all figures.

Picking cotton has turned exclusively a women
specific business, so much so that it has developed
socio-cultural legitimacy in rural areas of South
Punjab. “Men cannot pick cotton as women cannot spray
or plough, said an old lady in from Muddwala, Alipur
in the discussion group. In response to why only
women, the landlord Zawar Hussains says, “as women
cannot plough or spray, so are men who cannot pick cotton.
It is the nature’s divide. Men have got several other things
to do”. I could not happen to find a man even a boy
picking cotton. Picking cotton has

become entirely a feminine activity. It is all women. Be it injury or illness, men do not
care whatever happens to us as a result of picking cotton. They are busy in their own
work and other enjoyables. “I am, in a way, born and grew up in cotton, how can I tell
you for how long I have been in this profession?, Said an old lady from UC Gardezpur,
Shujabad. Neither the rate nor the annual raise is fixed. Sometimes the landlords tells
different price for a mound and while paying it back after a week or so he might say I
got the less price from the market, will therefore pay you less. Wages depend on how
much the farmer gets ahead. Last year I received Rs.160-200/mound.“I am getting
Rs.260/mound this year. Next year will come up with new stories. It is off late that cash
payment began in the area. Earlier we used to have one twentieth share of the total pick
in a day. We then sold it off to the retailers and sometimes used it ourselves”. Cotton
Control Ordinance (1966) declares ginning and processing of unclean and contaminated
phutti (raw cotton) as a legal offense and every now and then emphasizes on cotton
getting contaminated during picking, clearing and transportation hurting our economy
and foreign exchange.

A similar piece of advice extended by the Agriculture
Department also advises pickers to cover their heads
tightly with a woolen shawl or duppatta to control their
hair fall; to place collected cotton in a dry woolen shawl
and clean leaves, twigs, dry bolls very carefully. Raw
and     dry      stalks,   threads,    wrappers,   papers,
polypropylene, cigarette ends, jute, straws, dry grass and
other pollutants must not be there etcix. Obviously much
of that role is played by women, picking cotton.

One editorial of the Departmental Agriculture Magazine Zara’atnama claims that “given
the fertile soil and suitable environment Pakistan grows one of the best cotton in the world. All it
suffers from in the local and European market is the careless picking and unsafe transportation.
Hasty and slapdash picking pollutes the produce seriously affecting its quality”. The
Department, it argues, runs information and training campaign every year but the success
once again depends on the pickers’ sense of picking and cleaning cotton x. Needless to say, all
responsibility from all sides – farmers, experts, brokers, ginners, millers, advisors and
administrators - of procuring trash-free cotton is placed on the shoulders of poor
pickers without assuring fair wages, without training or facilitation and without
considering under what circumstances and how they pick cotton. Sophistication in
picking cotton is impossible with providing necessary equipment, adequate training

and sufficient wages. In addition to magnitude, appending quality picking with wages
is one of the fundamental prerequisite to put in place.

In the four target districts i.e. Multan, Muzzafargarh,
Lodhran and Khanewal, I spoke to scores of pickers. Not a
single respondent or a group mentioned of receiving any
training from any government department, save one or two
from local NGO2s in one of the districts. “The art of picking
cotton naturally comes to us. We learn it all on our own as we
start picking it form very early age,” said Fatima from
Muddwala, Alipur3. Save extending a couple of advices,

one fails to find public or private measures to assist and shore up pickers condition. It’s
the talk of higher yields, better pricing, foreign exchange and national economy you
hear from all corners all over the region. Farmer considers cleaning as part of the same
day labour within the same wages. He gets the cotton cleaned according to his own
standard. In official and business discussions, pickers’ condition and meager wages do
not feature in.

No woman, save exceptions, can pick 40 Kg or above in a day and clean it too. Cleaning
usually takes more time than picking. Individually, 25 to 30 Kg is the maximum amount
a woman picks in a day. In all the four districts, only one woman, Manzooran Bibi in
Gardezpur (Shujabad), was told to be fast enough to collect and clean around more than
40 kgs in some of her work days. Carrying the bundle on their heads, at times they have
to take it to the storage or to the trolleys or trucks parked away from fields.

  Doaba Foundations has extended one training on better picking methods and safety measures of picking
cotton to women of the Union Council Bosan, District Multan. Under a project by Oxfam GB.
  The field work in Muddwala Alipur was facilitated by Muslim Aqeel from Doaba Foundation, Muzzaffargarh and
Zahoor Joya from Sojhla for Social Change.

In August and September it is so hot and suffocating that
women have to rush out of fields several times to breathe
and take water. Otherwise, they might faint from heat and
pesticides fumes. “There is no day off. No Sunday, no
Friday, It is all the same for us, except someone is bed
stricken. Cotton picking and other agri-tasks continue on
and on”. In a land lord’s own words, “Sometimes it is so
hot out there that when my worker rings me up to come
and note down who picked how much cotton, I refuse

to come out. You please note it down yourself, I will pay the wages tomorrow”, said
Zawar Hussain, from Chack 77-10R, Khanewal.

Case Study Bhiravan Mai4, UC Bosan5, Multan: Engrossed in picking cotton, an old
lady in her 60s came out of the fields on our request. Exhausted by picking sine
morning, she was badly panting. “I am picking cotton from very young age. She
expressed during her interview. I grew up, got married and had children doing the
same labour. I have got 8 daughter and 2 sons. My husband is carpenter by caste and by
profession. He is very old and makes or repairs cots to earns Rs. 100 or 150 a day or two.
None of my child ever went to school. We married two of our daughters with a great
difficulty. All other daughters work with me in the fields, including the youngest one
who is 10.

    By the end of the day, all we collect is close to one and
    half or two mounds of cotton. The landlord pays us
    Rs. 260 for a mound but always in installments. ‘Yet
    not sold or I could not get better price from the
    market,’ he keeps extending excuses. There is no
    choice. We have to work with him. If I save Rs.10 or 20
    someday, I keep it for my daughter’s dowry. Me and
    my husband remain sick. Fever and non-stop
    scratching has seized my body for several years. Who

  Several women refused to take their photographs. Therefore, all women whose case studies are presented here
might not be seen in the pictures.
  The field work and women’s interviews in UC Bosan were facilitated by Nageena Malik from Doaba Foundation,

Men and women in an FGD at UC Gardezpur, Shujabad6 told: “Girls are usually not
sent to school. Distance becomes a problem .School is far and usually there is no one to
accompany or drop them in. Boys take the bicycle off to school but girls can neither
drive a bike nor walk long distances alone”.

None in a group of 17 women in Gardezpur and only 2 out of
19 women in Muddwala had their education below primary
levels. In fact most girls are taken to cotton picking and other
field activities from a very age. They do pick a couple of Kilos
to support us”, say the mother of young girls. Young girls mix
up their pick with their mother’s. A girl starts picking cotton
almost regularly from age 10. “Their share of labour is saved
for their dowry”, most mothers state

Case Study: Noor Mai of Chack 53 M, Lodhran: I have got two daughters and one son.
One of the daughters is married and the other one, aging 13, works with me in the
fields. My husband died of cancer several years ago. My son, she pointed her finger to a
young man who was standing besides us, remains sick and cannot work. All he can do
is herding farmers’ livestock against very low wages. Me and my daughter pick and
clean no more than 15 to 20 Kgs a day in return of Rs.150 or even less. It barely works
for a daylong ration for a day.

“Cotton pickers, said Amir Hamza (Deputy Directory, Pakistan Agriculture Research
Council) in a seminar7, rush in the morning to collect wet cotton just to raise its’ weight
and have more money but spoils the quality of cotton that goes darkening later”.
Women, when I spoke later, completely disagreed. We don’t have a choice. It is the
farmers who let us know what time to start picking. We never decide on our own.
Secondly, it takes almost whole day in cleaning before it is weighed. On top of that
visiting fields early morning is difficult because we have to make breakfast or do some

  Focus Group Discussion and individual interviews in Gardezpur, Shujabad were facilitated by Nageena Malik,
Doaba Foundation, Multan.
7 Under an Oxfam supported project, the seminar was organized by Doaba Foundation to highlight the

issues and problems faced by cotton picking women as part of their project to improve the conditions of
cotton picking women. The seminar and interactions with the respective officials was facilitated by
Mahar Zeshan from Doaba Foundation, Multan.

household work before proceeding to fields. Sometimes, if we do, it is the landlord who
would like us to start picking early in the morning. He would even like us not to have
our breakfast and do the job first”.

Anyway the pickers themselves cannot decide which day and what time to pick cotton.
Picking wet cotton is quite difficult and takes more time than drier one. “The biggest
negligence, the Deputy Director alleged, is committed by picking women, so that they
can have 50Kg in place of 40Kg. If pickers do their job honestly, they can have a fair
price for their labour”.

 “The pickers should stop being dishonest”, was his point. “When you do your job
honestly, God will save you from bigger losses. Do not run for picking as if cash is
grown out there. Do not try picking only the better flowers, skipping the bad ones and
leaving trouble for others. Never mix the rotten flower with the fresh ones. Having a
worm in it, it might spoil rest of the cotton. You need to wear new clothes to pick cotton
as the old one are contaminated with poison. You sleep with the same clothes and go
back picking in the same suit. Wash your clothes in yoghurt. It will clean the poison.
Always pick cotton cleanly, without a sangli (boll), patri (leaves), kackh-kana (trash) or
twigs. Only then you can get the better wages. You know all this but your minds while
picking are somewhere else. The wet cotton, you need to know, gets heated and
yellowish, lowering down its value. Think of the millers, think of the country’s
economy. If you still have any problem, please consult me”, he said while addressing
the poor cotton pickers.

The man spoke for almost an hour without uttering a single word about the potential
risk to pickers’ health, enhancing wages or putting up precautionary measures for
pickers’ safety. They only thing in their favour he spoke was of not to pick wet cotton
because it smears poison on pickers body and causes skin irritations.

Oblivious of women’s poverty and vulnerability, Dr. Zahid Mahmood (Zakrya
University’s head of Agriculture Engineering Department) extended similar advises to
women regarding how to pick cotton effectively and efficiently. Official experts and
analysts, as it is vivid from the above made comments and statements, fail to
understand that quality picking is impossible without fare wages, training and
provision of safety kits to the pickers. An effort to understand the socio-economic
condition of cotton pickers is totally missing.

In response to ‘how and what time do you start picking, women told me: “The landlord
gets it announced in the mosque or conveys message that such and such landlord’s
cotton shall be picked tomorrow. Come for collection in such and such fields at this or
that time and we approach the place accordingly.” Usually, the time and number of
pickers remains flexible because each picker gets paid against whatever amount she
ends up picking and cleaning up in a day.” “We have got, women told later, very
limited number of dresses. Given our excessive engagement, it is impossible to wash or
wear new suit every day. By the end of season, dry plants rough up our shawls and
dupattas wasting several or costing us time to repair. In summer women usually start
working earlier and get back by midday while in winters they start late and get back
late. It is clear that picking time or type is not a choice for them. The employer, landlord
or farmer, decides it himself.

                             Case Study: Faizan Mai, Chack 53 M, UC Sagwan,
                             Lodhran: Swarmed by dusty bugs, whom she termed
                             cotton lice and sprawled in a dry course of water, a
                             picker told us her story as under: “My name is Faizan
                             Mai. I come from a very poor Baluch family. I have got
                             two sons and two daughters, all married in poor
                             families. My husband never worked regularly but then
                             he met an accident on a motorbike and lost one of his
                             legs. Stuck up to the cot, he lived for 20 years and died
                             in pain. Two of my married sons
are wage labourers and hardly earn enough to make the two ends meet. They spare
nothing to support me too. After picking cotton, I usually buy a goat and sell it before
Eid-ul-Azha. With that money, I try buying wheat in bulk to secure my food for the
year. She is my daughter, pointing to a pregnant woman cleaning cotton with her, she
said, and works with me”.

In response to women’s intensive engagement in agriculture task, a small farmer,
Saqlain Khokhar from Shujabad, said, “God has blessed men’s income, whatever a

women earns can never fulfill household needs”. Interestingly, a picking woman
Zareena Bibi in Mudwala gave exactly an opposite remarks a couple of days earlier.
“Women’s income is blessed. One does so many things in a small amount of money.
She can buy more in less. Comparing, there is no baraka (blessings) in men’s income. It
come and goes off”. Coincidentally, her husband sitting within the group snubbed her
saying. “This is untrue. Actually, women are frugal in spending their own income and
generous with their husband’s proceed.”

Sitting on a parchoon shop, a very poor landless labourer, Rabnawaz Sial, whose wife
and daughters also picked cotton, expressed his poverty in the following words: “What
of meet, we can hardly find a goat’s intestines to eat. It is the Lord’s own scheme of
work, little known to earthly creatures. Man is helpless against his will. There are those
who are still sleeping till this moment (it was midday by then) and need not to bother
about their livelihood. On the other hand, there are those who are wrenching their
bodies in this sizzling heat. After a soul-snatching daylong labour, all they get is one
day’s ataa to survive on. There are days we literally go hungry. But crying does not
serve you food. You have to put men as well as women to work”.

Cotton Picking and Extended Agri-tasks:

Women’s labour does not end with the end of a season. Once the harvest is over, land is
prepared either for wheat, rice or for the next cotton crop. What men do is to plough,
water and spray, rest of everything is done by women. Sowing seeds, locally known as
chhopa, is a back breaking task of carefully dropping seeds in seedbeds. For seedling,
wages are paid differently from cotton. One acre is contracted out to a group or family
against Rs.1000 only. Likewise chhidrai (thinning) of wheat, cotton and paddy plants is
also done by women through a similar contractual arrangement. Hoeing (rambi), and
weeding is done by the same women in a similar manner. Fertilizing, on the other hand
is done in return of Rs. 200 per sack. Only Rs.800 per bigha (0.33 acre) is paid for
harvesting cotton. Sometimes one mound of wheat is given in return of year long
labour in one bigha of wheat field.

 Some studies suggest that 25% to 30% of women’s time is consumed in rice and cotton
fields. Put other activities together, agri-labour accounts for 40% to 50% of their labour.
With respect to major crops, women make 18% contribution in wheat, 23% in
sugarcane, 25% in cotton, 26% in vegetable and 30% in rice including thinning,

threshing, manuring, clearing, husking, chaffing, clearing, storing activities in addition
to caring of livestock which takes no less than a quarter of their timexi.

Bargaining Vulnerabilities:

‘Women freely operate in the labour market of picking cotton,’ is no more than rattling
a tin drum. Some of the landlords complain that finding right labour at right time is
difficult because, pickers are high in demand during the season and keep putting off
work. The reality flies back in the face of all such claims. Women’s free mobility is
extremely limited. Collecting fuel-wood and fodder, intertwined with picking, compels
them stick to the limited fields of specific landlords. Cotton pickers, in-fact hold little
freedom to pick and choose and possess almost no bargaining power. In case they
prefer one farmer over another, if at all, maximum benefit they find is no more than
Rs.15 or 20 after 40 Kg.

Away from their homestead, no landlord offers them food or shelter. Most pickers,
therefore, prefer working close to their households. They have to come back, anyway, to
prepare food for themselves and members of their family by the midday or get back
early in the evening. At times, they get back home having done their daylong job if a
woman or two are staying back home to take care of kids and prepare meals. Mostly
they work with landlords or farmers in the vicinity. If they deny working with nearby
landlords, they would not allow them collecting fuel-wood or fodder from their fields.
In last round of picking, women receive 4th, 6th or 8th portion of their pick depending on
the remaining amount, quality or thickness of the crop. This incentive bids them further
to work in same fields all the year round. Normally, it is thinly spread low quality of
cotton at the end and sells very cheap in market. It is up to women then, whether they
keep it for domestic use or cell it off to a retailer. Even this practice is not very common.
Farmers, more or less, prefer to sell even the last bunch of their cotton flowers.

Secondly, they work in a farmer’s field with their men’s permission or at least consent.
Most women work in family groups and do not decide individually. Refusing for one
task or insisting for particular amount of wages for cotton may lose a whole chain of
labour they receive from a landlord. Never defined as slave or bonded labour in
classical sense of the term but the arrangement is no less confining. Gender, legitimized
norms of parda and patriarchal control, household responsibilities, caring for kids,
unavailability of food and water in the fields and family obligations make them
vulnerable to compromise on whatever wages offered by the landlord.

Farmers keep giving wages almost daily or on alternative days in the start but as the
picking season draws to close they keep putting off payment. Actually, it is farmers’
tactic to manipulate pickers for continuous work with them till all their cotton is picked.
This holds them back to pick for someone else even if he offers better wages. Ending
season, they keep back wages to get women back to work with them even if the chances
of shifting fields are quite limited. Sometimes, the landlords hold back the piece of cloth
women collect in cotton to get them back to work in their fields.

More the number of women, happier the landlord is. Each woman then hardly collects 5
or 10 Kg of cotton and his job is done in no time. Usually, they walk down to fields and
get back on their own. Maximum, what a landlord does is to load them to and from the
village in a tractor trolley. Come November-December, some landlords reduce
Rs.100/mound on average. It is easier to pick in winter than summer, they argue. To
pickers, it is equally tough picking in cold as in heat. Their hands and feet go freezing
inside fields while picking cotton.

The share of their last pick or otherwise, women sell small amounts of cotton to
retailers, more than often a parchoon firosh in the village. Selling the stuff in a small
quantity always gets very low price from the market. Pickers, whatsoever, have no idea,
what its rate is in the market. All they know is what they get from a landlord or a
retailer against a kilo. “We then, says Muhammad Rashid a Parchoon firosh of Chack 53-
M, Lodhran8, assess the quality and wetness of cotton before offering rate to pickers.
Normally, we offer Rs.5 to Rs.10 less than the market rate. Cross checking it in the
market, I came to know that they offer Rs.20-25 less against a Kg than the open market.
Sometimes young children also bring cotton in small quantities to retailers in the
village. Obviously, they have no idea about the rate and accept whatever is offered.
Sometimes, if a small landlord’s family needs cash for ration, they too bring a kilo or
two during the season.

Clever Calculations to Rob off the Picker’s Labour:

Not on her own name but a woman’s wage, to be paid later, is written on her husband
or father’s name. The picker in turn receives a parchi (chit) to claim her wages back.
However, the uneducated women cannot make sense of the parchi as such. They try

 My interactions and opportunity to talk with the farmers of Lodhran was facilitated by Maalik Ashtar from
Damaan Development Foundation, Multan.

remembering their credit by heart. As day to day quantity of their pick varies, hence,
the chances of laps or miscalculation are common. In case of mughalta (miscalculation or
misunderstanding), it is pickers who mainly suffer.

Landlords, complain most pickers, weigh 2 to 4 Kg less against each 40 Kg. “We are
ignorant, cannot read or write, how we can read scales accurately? “It is to keep an
account of trash and weight of the cloth the cotton is weighed in”, landlords justify the
practice. “It is complete dishonesty, one of the dealers commented, when I shared the
practice with him. Keeping cloth’s weight into account, ‘1’ Kg kaat (deduction) is
standard. Anything above that is all to steal poor women’s hard work”. One of the
small farmers, Ghulam Yaseen from UC Bosan, himself confessed of deducting 3 to 4 kg
against each 40 Kg”. But, I do not do it anymore”, he said. It was the change of heart
sometimes ago and I stopped doing it. Now I deduct ‘1’ Kg only against each 40 kg,
which is a norm. However several other landlords in the area, whom I personally know,
do it”. Illiterate women cannot get the tricks played by the dealers or farmers. Even if
they do, “it is to keep an account of the trash”, they assert. Most growers and dealers
deny willful under-scaling other than standardized kaat. “One or another woman takes
note of the scale”, they stress.

Collected by women flower by flower, business in big markets moves in millions of
tons. Cotton bales are thrown here and there in exchange of hundreds of thousands of
rupees. Except labourers, every player at each step earns profit. Bigger the investment,
bigger the profits, so simple is that. In ghalla mandi9 (main market), arhatis (dealers) pay
Rs.11/mound as loading charges to labourers. (It was Rs. 7/mound in his note book
that I happened to see later). Rs. 0.40/mound and Rs.0.10/mound is paid to the Town
Committee in the head of Zila Tax. Rs 0.75/mound is charged to farmers and Rs.
1.0/mound to the Selectors – factory’s purchasing agents who come down buying
cotton from mandi. The auctioneer charges us Rs.1.0/mound for voicing the price and
cutting a deal. On top of that, we pay annual income tax to the government. Risking the
investment sometimes we purchase stock from farmers and at other times we hold it to
pay back once it is sold out”, explain Nazeer Dogar at his arhat. On the other hand,
dealing in 10,000 to 15,000 mounds a day, a dealer in fact earns Rs. 20,000 to

When I discussed the issue of oppressive employment and lower wages of pickers with
one of the growers, Rao Shabeer in Lodhran, he said: “Let’s say market price is

    In Ghalla mandi Lodhran, I interviewed several dealers.

Rs.2000/mound. I pay Rs.300 to the pickers. Rs.20 to 30 Rupees transportation charges
against each mound. Rs. 100/mound is lost against sikri (trash) in the market. A couple
of 10s are paid to arhati against each 40 Kg just to hold for a couple days and deal in my
produce. Taking away exorbitantly higher inputs cost what do I save hardly Rs.1500-
1600/mound? How can I pay more to a picker?” “There is no exploitation, he added,
but market does not provide a cushion to increase wages. Multiple pressures compel
farmer to keep the pickers wages whatever maximum possible”. “Day to day rate keeps
fluctuating and heavy risks keep impending around,” assert dealers10 and growers.

“When we get a better rate from the market, we pay better wages to pickers”, says a
middle level farmer Ghulam Shabbir from Khanewal. For instance, the price last year
approached to Rs.4000/mound and we gave Rs. 300 or above to the pickers. This year
the rate is stagnant around Rs.2000-2500/mound. So the pickers’ charges are also low,
he argued.” Generally, farmers’ statements do not corroborate with one another.
Women are told of receiving better wages i.e. (Rs.250 to 300/40 Kg) this year than the
previous one i.e. (Rs.150 to 200/40 kg) due to price hike in general. Last year, as
acknowledged by farmers themselves, price shot up to Rs. 4000/mound. But women
were paid even less wags than they receive this year. Very few women told of receiving
Rs. 300 i.e. marginally higher wages this year. Probably, it addresses the general price
hike but once again does correspond to cotton’s rate in the market.

The truth is that whether big or small, all farmers, all dealers, all factory selectors,
remain abreast with the latest rate and sell or purchase the stock at the best possible
point in time to gain maximize profit or potential benefit. All of them operate as active
and rational marketing agents – as argued by classical economic theories. Picking
women are devoid of social or economic choice and do not possess any powers and
have no market information to argue over to secure their wages. Keeping other factors
constant, the pickers wages are stagnant. They receive a bare minimum amount just for
their survival. The worth of their labour is rarely valued.

On the other count parchoon firosh (retailers) who purchase phutti kilo by kilo from
pickers, sometimes collect as higher an amount as 2 to 3 mounds in a day. Usually, they
pay Rs.20-25 to the sellers there comparing the market rate. They justify underpayment
against the transportation and storage charges or poor quality and mixing of all
varieties together. In most cases the dealers or selectors come to collect the stocks from
them at almost double the price they pay to the pickers.

     Rao tassuwar, Sarfraza Ali and Chaudhary Nazeer Dogar of Ghalla Mandi, Lodhran.

Putting it best in apickers’ words from Gardezpur, Shujabad: “It is a chain of
dishonestly, exploitation and underpayment. Landlord cheats picker. He is cheated by
the arhati. Arhti is exploited by Selectors and Selector by the millers and millers by the
government or others. So on and so forth. This is how the business of phutti runs

Picking Cotton in Poisonous Fields:

Contrary to some earlier studies or general perception11, I could not find a woman
totally ignorant of the poisonous and harmful effects of picking cotton. It is common
sense, if something kills living organisms; it is surely harmful for human beings too.
Though not with a scientific sense of cause-and-effect relationship but all my
respondents were well aware of the detrimental effects of pesticides. Except a few all of
them mentioned multiple health problems generated from picking cotton, during of
after the season. Nevertheless, their knowledge about its intensity or severity was
limited. Comparatively, men’s were more sensitive about the poisonous effects of
pesticides than women. Men or women’s total ignorance from pesticides harmfulness
seems implausible when they themselves keep witnessing extreme cases here and there
across several villages of the town.

Two of the recent incidences of committing suicide by inhaling pesticides were quoted
in my research area: Fed-up of a family squabble revolving around her marriage, Zewar
Bibi, about 30, committed suicide in Basti Muddwala (Alipur) last year. By drinking the
small quantity, left-back in a cane and timely taken to hospital, she somehow survived.
In the second case, as told by Hajran Mai from Gardezpur, Shujabad, a young girl12
about 20, drank pest-killer in protest to her forced betrothal with her cousin. At the time
of my research,13 she was in hospital but expired within a week14. In a discussion,
village group said, “now we keep pesticides canes and residue away from house and bury the
left over poison in earth. Young boys and girls attempt to inhale it on minor disputes. It is
essential to keep pesticides away from the approach of other family members. ”

   Say Jabar and Mohsin 1992 and couple of others indicated in the footnotes.
   Her name was not disclosed by the respondents.
   Early September 2012.
   In both of the cases the details were not told because it is assumed to be dishonoring for the family and the local

Conversely, community’s attitude towards the risks of picking cotton in the fields
drenched with poison is quite casual. “If a worm bites or insect stings, we do not rush
back home fearing our phutti might be stolen or mixed with someone else’s. Getting
back home in the evening, we apply oil and salt on it. Take lemon shake, if we feel too
low and sometimes lassi (a kind of milky drink),” told women in FGD at Shujabad.
“Fever and body ache is common. Malaria also attacks from time to time. A volley of
cough begins, if the field is freshly sprayed or it is too hot and suffocating in the fields.
We go to see the doctor, only if we feel it is going to be over, otherwise. Doctors usually
recommend glucose, costing us more than we earn. Getting to the town is also
problematic,” said Azmat bibi and others from Basti Kheran, Shujabad.” Except skin
rashes, cough or headaches, men too were unaware of the dangerous effects like
reproductive complications, breast cancer, blindness and chronic ulcers etc.

Case Study: Shamshad Bibi, Basti Kirtwahna, Moza Dhunddi, Shujabad: She just
came out of cotton fields. Badly sweating and trying catching up her breath, a woman
from Basti Kirtwahana (Shujabad), spoke to us. “My name is Shamshad. I am around 35
36. I am married and have got two sons and one daughter. We are extremely poor. My
elder daughter is 12 and two sons are 10 and 7. My husband is a casual labourer and
makes no more than Rs.5000 a month. It is impossible to run a house such a meager
amount of money. Hence, my daughter picks cotton with me. I cannot think of sending
my kids to school when it is so hard to seek two times meal a day?”

With tears rolling on her cheeks, she informed us about another serious problem. “I am
afflicted with kala yarqan (black jaundice or hepatitis C) for last several years. Fighting
with it, I still have to work in fields. I have visited several hospitals but no vain. It is
getting incurable now. Doctors, ask me to go for its’ proper treatment which might cost
me more than one hundred thousand rupees, as I was told. How can I imagine having
such a big amount?. I have heard, its’ vaccine is terribly expensive. Precisely, the life is
in trouble”.

Cotton fields drenched in pesticides cause serious health hazards to picking women.
Intensive work and exposure to toxic chemicals renders them vulnerable to chronic
headaches, nausea, sickness, respiratory contractions and skin irritations. Bruises and
broken skin augments the likelihood of pesticides transfusion into the pickers’ blood.
None of them adopts any precautionary measures. Most of them are not familiar to
safety measures, equipment or any such thing. Increased frequency of late sprays,

though ineffective for crops as diagnosed by experts, is on the rise and causes serious
harm to the pickers health.

One of the doctors was not comfortable in talking about
the issue. “How could I know, who is affected by
pesticides and who is not? Dozens of village women visit
me every day and number of them with similar signs too.
It is difficult to attribute a symptom caused by pesticides.
And off course, I am not sure which woman picks cotton
and which not?” Anila Siddiqui, a lady doctor15 on Bosan
Road Multan stated: “Most cotton picking women have
got skin allergies, severe headaches, vomiting and are
chronically anemic. I receive three to four patients daily
Who are affected by poisonous cotton one way or the other. They want immediate relief
and do not go for regular treatment, that it demands”.

Stinging and biting of insects even snakes is frequently reported. Once falling ill,
visiting a hospital or clinic in town is difficult without a man’s permission.
Accompanying of a male relative is must, even if he is younger and dependent on the
woman he is accompanying. For a single woman travelling alone is no less than a
challenge. “We cannot judge a snake bite till the spot gets swells abnormally. Usually,
we ignore small rashes” Women told in FGDs in Alipur and Shujabad.

     The interview with the Lady Doctor was conducted by Sameena Jaffry from Sojhla for Social Change, Multan

                                            Case Study: Bukhsh Bibi, Basti Kehtarvana, UC
                                            Gardezpur, Shujabad: Surprised by seeing a big black
                                            mark of injury or whatever on her hand, I16 asked
                                            spontaneously what happened here? “It is the snake
                                            bite, she said”. Asking details she told: “My name is
                                            Bux Bibi. My age is about 40 but am never married.
                                            Actually I was betrothed to my father’s sister’s son and
                                            my brother to her daughter. Getting married my
                                            brother and his wife could not pull along well and
                                            quickly their relations went sour. She believed it is all
                                            my brother and our family’s fault. In revenge, my aunt
                                            did his son’s nikah with me but never had a rukhusti.

I left my parents home and now live at my sisters’. I am poor and so is my sister. We
pick cotton in fields. Normally, I collect 20 to 25 Kg cotton in a day in return of Rs.100 or
150. Last year, when I was collecting cotton, I got a scratch on my hand with a drop of
blood. Ignoring it as a usual matter, I kept working and got back home finishing the day
long labour. Just in a single night my hand turnred into a bludgeon and began hurting
unbearably. I managed visiting a clinic on main road Shujabad, next day. ‘It appears to
be a snake bite,’ the Doctor said, and referred me to the hospital. Doctors over there
confirmed it to be the snake bite, though of a less poisonous snake. I could die had I
been further late. Fortunately, I survived with some treatment. But I still have to collect
cotton to earn my living. However, I have just begun a parchoon shop at my house and
plan to stop picking cotton once this business picks up”.

No eminent studies have been conducted, especially to assess the toxic residues of
pesticides in picker’s body. One of the rare studies examines 74% of cotton pickers as
moderately poisoned by pesticides. Toxic content in the rest is also measured to be
appallingly higher that might cause death. One of the studies carried out by Dr. Karin
Astrid in South Punjab (2006) observes the amount of pesticides immediately after the
harvest exceeding the minimum acceptable level of poisonous residue. Only 10% of the
subjects were found in the normal range. Broadly 2 to 5 million people are directly or
indirectly affected by pesticides in Pakistan. Approximately, 1 million persons are
hospitalized, 37000 are afflicted by cancer and 20,000 die with similar symptoms every
year. Women picking and cleaning cotton and handling the fodder and fuel-wood
remain at the increased risk of problematic pregnancies and breast cancer. 77% of cotton
growers, according to her assessment, had some orientation of pesticides’ health

     The interview was mainly conducted by Samina Jaffery from Sojhla for Social Change, Multan.

hazards while 17% had some knowledge of its harmful effects and only 8% failed to
associate any problems with itxii.

More specifically (as studied by Garcia 2003, Jack 2003 and Javaid et al 2006 and
indicated in Qamar and Hussain et al 2008) the pesticides poison cause erythrocyte
cholinesterase and lowered plasma cholinesterase of severe or moderate intensity. Five
years consecutive exposure to pesticides in whatever form takes its intensity to the
dangerous level. Cough, itching, urticaria, deramal blisters, vertigo, respiratory
disorder, sneezing, rhinitis, dizziness and muscular pain are common symptoms
observed in women in picking season. Chronic fungal and corneal ulcers, particularly
among picking women, are also reported. Perforation or thinning of cornea, if not
properly treated, leads to eyeball-collapsing, blindness and/or corneal opacities.

According to World Health Organization (2004?), “Long-term exposure to pesticides can
increase the risk of developmental and reproductive disorders, immune-system disruption,
endocrine disruption, impaired nervous-system function, and development of certain cancers.
Children are at higher risk from exposure than are adultsxiii”.

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP 2001) that estimated from a sample of
5127 thousand tons of cotton picked by 2.7 million women in 9 cotton districts of Punjab
that 87% of cotton picking women experience sickness during or after the picking
season, losing the country’s Rs.105 million on treatment and the work valued as Rs. 660

Growers and Dealers attitude towards Pickers:

Men’s and largely the employer’s attitude towards women’s exposure to pesticides and
other risks is of easy going and carefree. “The labour class does not bother minor
injuries or bruises. Although they do get hurt in this process but they don’t care and get
well again”, the landlord Saqlain Khokar justified the problem. “While picking cotton
the small cuts or skin irritations, they receive heal up soon quite naturally. These
nzakitain (over careful attitude) suit urban madams only,” he explained further.

Growers, ginners, dealers all sound to be highly concerned to their respective profit and
loss. None of them places any significance at the women’s fundamental role in picking
and cleaning cotton. All they speak about pickers, is a few words of sympathy, if at all

and that’s it. Actually all players in this chain of business point each other of earning
huge sums of profit. Less and more, of course, all of them earn profits every year. Their
obsession with Bt itself demonstrates non-stop profiteering greed. it is only the pickers
who fall at the lowest ebb of this soiled business. The fact is, profiteering business of
growing, ginning, manufacturing and trading stands on the feeble shoulders of picking

In response to my question about the problems faced by pickers, almost all involved in
the chain express their sympathy with the pickers. But in reality, it is no more than lip
service. Be they retailers or dealers, they themselves are farmers too, which they do not
readily declare. They have got their own lands as well as well as leases and exclusively
grow cotton. Whenever you talk to them, their final sympathies fall with farmers, not
with the pickers.

To sum up, Cotton picking as well as other agriculture roles are highly gendered.
Farmers, sprayers, pesticides sellers and brokers all are exclusively men. Likewise
cotton and textile (C&T) industry is predominantly possessed by men. Women and girls
are allowed rather compelled by their economic circumstances to work openly in fields.
On contrary, they are not free to attend school at a distance, visit market or see the
doctor even in emergency without permission from male relatives. Class norms also
determine their helplessness. Wives and daughters of landlords and better off farmers
are rarely seen in fields. Poor women, however take care of every task except a few
specified for men as skilled activities. Number of women engaged in informal
agriculture tasks is far more than men. To keep them underpaid, their role is perhaps
deliberately defined as ‘informal’ by all actors involved in agriculture, mainly, cotton
growwes and dealers.

Labour Laws & Cotton Pickers:

Each player in the extended business of processing cotton is almost convinced that
things are just fine with pickers. “Determining working hours and minimum wage for
cotton pickers is impossible in free labour market”, argue most of the farmers and
dealers. “She can pick any amount of cotton in any number of hours to multiply her
wages. If we fix a minimum wage, she will have to work for X number of hours and
collect Y amount of cotton for a day, which is obviously difficult in case of cotton,” is
another argument that I frequently heard from dealers and those hiring pickers. On the
ground, I observed women picking and cleaning cotton for several hours in a day. If we
consider person days of small girls accompanying their mothers, it normally exceeds a
day long labour in the formal labour sector. Piece rate arrangement without any
governmental or unionized mediation is a total business of exploitation.

Women respondents simply have no idea of labour laws or minimum wages. All they
know, what they get against X amount of cotton picked in a day. Very limited initiatives
from the Government, Labour Unions, NGOs or any other independent bodies have
been taken to improve the conditions of cotton pickers in Pakistan. Labour laws are
already failing informal sector and cotton picking is one f the most neglected and
under-addressed sector with respect to labour laws.

National Textile Leather Garments and General Workers Federation (PNTLGWG) did
make some efforts to organize cotton pickers and other seasonal workers but without a
notable success. Even Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), a
well known think tank for labourer rights, could not succeed in sufficiently highlighting
their problems, although it does speak of textile workers, their issues and rights from
time to timexv.

Concluding Thoughts and Recommendations:

Cotton fiber is highly admired all over the world. International market and consumers
demand indicate its likeness and acceptability graph constantly picking up. Cotton is
supposed to be the best fabric in fashionable and affluent circles of society here and
abroad. But who cares that it is the pickers sweat and blood imparting lime and luster to
versatile cotton uppers, aprons, shirts and trousers. Amidst the booming industry of C

& T all these years, little has changed in favour of cotton pickers. Society’s and state’s
conscience, in this regard, needs to be shaken to take legal, technical, ethical, social,
economic and health measures to assist women who pick cotton in chilling hot and cold

The problems of exploiting cotton picking women does not confine to enhancing
women’s wages alone, which is obviously a must, but minimizing pesticides and
respecting nature is also important at the same time. Increasing women’s wages as well
taking necessary measures for their health are simultaneously important to be adopted.
Therefore, I recommend multiple measures intertwined with each other. Without
addressing the problems in every sphere cotton productions and sale, pickers’
exploitation cannot be put to end:

    Ethically, responsible, cautious and reasonable ecological control of pests,
     sensitive management of nature in place of fierce and brutal interference with
     nature is required. To maintain ecological equilibrium, a middle way to manage
     pests, seek growth as well as preserve nature is required. Nature herself, if
     observed and emulated in intelligent manner, can resolve several of its problems.
     In Carson’s words, I would like to recommend: “We need a more high-minded
     orientation and a deeper insight, which I miss in many researchers. Life is a miracle
     beyond our comprehensions, and we should reverence it...The resort to weapons such as
     insecticides to control it is a proof of insufficient knowledge”.

    Reversing the trends of degrading nature and augmenting poverty is not
     possible without nature and human friendly methods of agriculture. Cotton
     picking women as well as farmers knowledge about pests, crop management and
     multi-cropping also needs to be enhanced. Increased attention to livestock and
     food crops need to be paid where women are already extensively engaged and
     their labour and wages need to be formalized. Less harmful, local and imported
     techniques, of higher yields are out there to be practiced. Center of Excellence in
     Molecular Biology (CEMB) and National Agriculture Research Council (NARC)
     could be empowered and resources should be allocated by the government for
     the purpose. Radical policy and practice reforms to improve the condition of
     women and environment are need of the time.

    Largely, the Government has failed to comprehend the underlying relationship
     between the pickers’ poverty, environment and agriculture, pushing things to
     the verge of disaster in cotton growing and other agriculture spheres. Reversing
   the trends of degrading nature and mounting poverty is not possible without
   nature and human friendly methods of agriculture. Farmers knowledge about
   pest and crop management and multi-cropping also needs to be enhanced.
   Increased attention to livestock and food crops need to be paid. Less harmful
   techniques of higher yields are out there or be innovated to be practiced. Center
   of Excellence in Molecular Biology (CEMB) and National Agriculture Research
   Council (NARC) could be empowered and resource be allocated for the purpose.
   Sustained use of resources must be a priority along with higher productions and
   fair wages to the labourers – women cotton pickers in this case.

 Effective implementation of Agriculture Pesticides Ordinance and Rules
  formulated in 1971 & 1973 is essential to stop farmers and corporates from
  frequent violation with impunity. Food and Agriculture Regulation, adopted in
  1965, essentially need to be amended to address pesticides residues as well as
  incorporate safety measures for pickers. United Nations Food and Agriculture
  Organisation’s (FAOs) International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and
  Use of Pesticides discouraging agro-chemicals and promoting integrated pest
  management, and National Environment Policy Measures (2005) need to be
  widely disseminated and practiced. Conscious of its effects to the cotton pickers,
  it does indicate essential measures to protect the pickers.

 Besides that, Integrated Crop Management (ICM) and Integrated Pest
  Management (IPM), involving a broad range of pre- and post-harvest
  management practices developed by Pakistani experts should also be extended
  to the farmers. It must bind farmers and employers to ensure the safety of the
  cotton picking women. BMPs and ICMs systems having proven success in
  particular temperature and environments should be transmitted to the big,
  medium and small farmers. They might help improving the socio-economic
  conditions of farmers and pickers. Progressive farmers could be engaged for
  innovative and appropriate BMPs for on-farm adaptive research and practices,
  safe for everyone.

 Improving soil nutrition and assuming advanced nutrient measures, in place of
  unabated pest sprays, need to be preferred in for higher yield and better cotton
  produce. Life cycle of major pests and insects could be controlled by better
  understanding and earth friendly measures.

 Labour laws, already extended to several other informal sectors, must be
  extended to the agriculture sector and ensured to be respected by the farmers by
  the Government of Pakistan. Labour Unions in the agriculture sector must be
  encouraged particularly for women, engaged in cotton picking as well as other
  agri tasks. It might take some time but they process might pick up with the
  passage of time and result in securing fair wages to women.

 With ensuing regulations of World Trade Organization (WTO) food and other
  commodities are being rigorously tested to assess its poison content. Our agri
  products, including cotton are gradually being rejected or attracting
  uneconomical prices. Henceforth making our products contamination free, in
  this sector, needs to be a priority. Besides that where testing goods and
  commodities is important women and agriculture labourers health is equally
  important to be examined and adequate treatment extended in case of negative

 Especial treatment facilities for directly or indirectly pest affected people,
  including the cotton picking women need to be adopted if we want to secure
  health of the present and future generations of the rural women that make
  almost half the rural population. Periodical examination of women’s health, so
  long as the menace is eliminated, must be ensured to protect them from chronic
  contaminations. Provision of safety equipment and precautionary measures must
  be made a binding for farmers and cotton industry before they hire women for
  the task.

 C & T Industry should contribute in setting up a fund to open contamination
  testinglaboratories and pesticides affetees’ treatment centers in major cotton
  producing districts of South Punjab.

 With import liberalization in 1995, if Pakistan wants to develop and maintain its
  cotton export market, protective measures for cotton pickers, especially against
  the over applications of pests and better wages be adopted as a priori. A relevant
  decision made by Trading Corporation of Pakistan (TCP) to provide certain
  incentives needs to proactively implemented. It might, in case, stringently
  applied, result into better wages for cotton pickers. Very simple, it is eventually
  women who clean and control certain types of contaminations, desired by TCP.

   But once again it is impossible without increasing the wages and improving
   socio-economic conditions of the pickers.

 In 1994, International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD)
  reaffirmed to fulfill and protect women’s rights, expand their economic choices
  and facilitate their access to education, knowledge and skill development and
  health services as well as employment. Discriminatory practices, like the one in
  the field of cotton picking, must be ‘eliminated in third world and other
  counties’, it emphasizes. Women’s role in national growth and development
  must be acknowledged by the states it further stresses. The government of
  Pakistan, the signatory and ratifier of women rights must take active measures to
  eliminate oppressive practices against women, including the field of cotton
  growing, picking and cleaning.

 Banning Bt cotton, highly attractive to pests, heavily demanding pesticides,
  unsuitable to our environment, dangerous to general population and pickers
  health in particular must be considered. The progressive measure is successfully
  being adopted in certain other developing countries. Small farmers are especially
  suffering from higher input cost and decreasing yield. Pickers’ health is being
  destroyed in their race to earn maximum profit.

 Civil society organizations, print and electronic media and rights campaigners
  need to highlights the problems of pesticides and risks to cotton pickers and
  several other problems associated with Bt cotton. Discouraging farmers to grow
  Bt should be part of their campaign. This is, nonetheless, not possible without
  effective state measures and coordinated efforts from NGOs, independent
  institutions, experts and corporate. Agriculture Extension Department should
  play its’ role in imparting, training, educating and teaching cotton growers and
  pickers about precautionary measures, integrated IPM and ICM and how to
  secure healthy crops without excessive use of pesticides.

 Establishing a provincial and national body to measure and maintain
  internationally recommended Minimum Residue Level as recommended by
  World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organizations and
  other relevant institutions is a must. A regulatory body, comprising on
  recognized and responsible agri and health professionals be developed to extend
  or prohibit the import of certain seeds and pesticides.

 Suggested measures will not only save the health of cotton pickers rather protect
  the whole food chain from being contaminated.


End Notes and References:

 World Wide Fund for Nature and Economic Conservation Initiative, Pakistan (2008) Better Management
Practices for Cotton and Sugarcane, Crop Management review, Published in 2006 by WWF - Pakistan,
Ferozepur Road, Lahore - 54600, Pakistan and
Karin Astrid Siegmann (Jan – Feb 2006) Cotton Pickers After the Quota Expiry: Bitter Harvest, SDPI
Research and News Bulletin, Vol. 13, No. 1, Islamabad:

iiMuhammad Arshad, Anjum Suhail, M. Asghar, M. Tayyib and Faisal Hafeez (2007) Factors Influencing
the Adoption of Bt Cotton in the Punjab, Pakistan, Journal Of Agriculture & Social Sciences 1813–
2235/2007/03–4–121–124, Department of Agriculture Entomology, University of Agriculture, Faisalabad

iiiHealth Hazards, Environmental Effects and Externalities of Pesticide Use in Pakistan, See:,
 Qamar-ul-Haque and Hussain R. et all (2008) Orientation Of Cotton Growers Of Multan District About
Health Hazards And Pesticide Use: Pakistan Journal of Agriculture Science, Vol. 45(4)
 Karin, A.S. 2007. SDPI, Weakest Link in the Textile Chain Cotton Pickers’ Pesticides Exposure, Cotton
Pickers Pesticides Exposures, Pakistan.

 Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Yaakov Garb, Science, Technology, and Society, MIT, Methodologies of

Environmental Analysis: Yaakov Garb 2002:

vii    Health hazards, environmental effects and externalities of pesticides use (2012), See:
 Dr. Tahir Anwar (2008) Pesticides Residues in Water, Soil, Fruits and Vegetables in Cotton Growing
Areas of Sindh and Lower Punjab, Department of Zology, University of Karachi, Pakistan.

 Department of Agriculture (2012) Kapas ki saaf chunai, zakheer or tarseel, Government of Punjab,


x     Zaratnama (August 15, 2012), Directorate of Agriculture, Lahore, Punjab.
 Muhammad Luqman1, Niaz Hussain Malik And Ahmad Saeed Khan (2006) Rural Women’s
Participation in Agricultural and Household Activities, Journal Of Agriculture &Social Sciences,
Department of Agricultural Extension, Education and Continuing Education, See:, University of Agriculture, Faisalabad,
       Karin Astrid Siegmann (Op cit)
  World Health Organizations (2004?) Toxic Hazards, See:
  National Agriculture Research Council (2004?) See:


Ahmad, I., Khan, M.A. Soomro, M.H. and Waibel, H. (2002) Pesticides hazards for health and
environment. Farming Outlook October-December, pp.14-16.

Food and Agriculture Organization (1997) Gender and Participation in Agricultural Development
Planning: Lessons from Pakistan, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. Rome, Italy

Garcia A. (2003) Pesticide exposure and women’s heath, Am. J. Ind. Med. 44(2003): 584–594.

Hasnain, T. (1999) Pesticide Use and its Impact on Crop Ecologies: Issues and Options, SDPI Working
Paper Series, SDPI, Islamabad, pp.73

Jack, J.K. (2003) Clinical Ophthalmology, 5 Edition, Butterworth Heinmann, London, UK,

Siegmann, Karin Armstid (2009) Trade and Gender Interface: A Perspective from Pakistan, In the Book:
Law, Culture and Society, Published by Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) See:

Dr. Tahir Anwar (2008), Pesticides Residues in Water, Soil, Fruits and Vegetables in Cotton Growing
Areas of Sindh and Lower Punjab, by, Department of Zology, University of Karachi, Pakistan.

Javaid, A.B., Q.M. Khan, M.A. Haq, A.M. Khalid and A. Nasim. (2006) Cytogenic analysis of Pakistani
individuals occupationally exposed to pesticides in pesticide industry. Mutageness 21(2): 143-148.

Qadri, S.M.A. and M.K. Jehan (1982) Women in Agriculture Sector in Sindh, Studies on rural women in
Sindh, Women’s Division Cabinet Secretariat, Government of Pakistan, Islamabad

Qamar-ul-Haq, Illyas Ahmad Fareedi, Tanvir Ali, Muneer Ahmad (2008) Pest diagnosis and pesticide use
by cotton growers of multan area and their occupational health, Pakistan Journal of Agriculture sciences,
Vol. 45(4).

Ruma, Y., M.A. Cheema and S. Anwar (2004) Effects of Pesticide Application on the Health of Rural
Women Involved in Cotton Picking, International J. Agric. Biol. 1560–8530/2004/06–1–220–221.

United Nations (1995) Women in Agriculture. International Conference on Population and Development.
United Nation Organization

World Wide Fund for Nature (2006) Better Management Practices for Cotton and Sugarcane, Crop
management review: Helping farmers mange their crops in the most appropriate and better way, WWF
and Fereoze Sons Pakistan, Lahore.

xvPILER (2010) Labour Rights in Pakistan: Declining Decent Work and Emerging Struggles: A Report
July 2010, Karachi,


To top