Working for pennies: Life in the fields for seasonal laborers

Usually we associate the summer with holidays, traveling, or relaxation. But for some, it’s the harvest season.

Usually we associate the summer with holidays, traveling, or relaxation.

But for some, it’s the harvest season.

In Azerbaijan, generally women take on the role of harvesters; housewives that want to earn a little bit of extra cash and help the family, in addition to local teachers, nurses, teenagers and sometimes even children. Many of them come from low income families.

23 years of harvesting

Khatira Sharifova is an IDP from the Jabrail region of Nagorno-Karabakh. She has been harvesting for more than 23 years. In the second year after she got transferred to the Sabirabad region, she went to harvest. And now it has been 23 years that she has worked exclusively in the fields without any other income.

Although she and all her compatriots moved to the Bilasuvar IDP towns which were built almost ten years ago, her fate as a harvester continues here.

“We call this sort of work ‘seasonal work’. But we work almost the whole year. After all, before the harvest, there is still the process of sowing, then you need to work to clear the field of weeds…”

Khatira never knows who her direct employer is. She has never had any labor contract, has never signed any papers and is not interested in whom she works for.

“Every day a truck arrives in our IDP town. It’s about a 40-50 minute drive to the field. The driver of this car is also an intermediary between the owner of the field and us — the workers in the fields. He negotiates with us, assigns payment for work, solves problems with water and medicines. Sometimes some men come to the field, watching how we work, and quickly leave. Well, who wants to stand under the sun when someone works for you?” Khatira says.

Sometimes, she earns less than one manat per hour for her work.

Now Khatira with other female workers is harvesting tomatoes. The work starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 7-8 p.m. The whole working day is about 11-12 hours. For this work under the hot sun, Khatira receives 12 manat (about 7 dollars) per day. Employers here pay from 8 to 15 manat (approximately 5-9 dollars) per day. The amount of daily earnings depend on what part of the work the worker does. The lowest payment is received by women who carry full buckets of vegetables to trucks. And those who stand in the car ready to load the tomatoes get the most.

“And in the two-month cotton harvest season, we get money not per day, but per the kilogram. In this case we try to come to the fields with our whole family in order to collect more. We take everyone who sits at home without any work, even the younger ones… You can not take them to the field, the landlords do not pay their daily earnings, they say that children do not work, and it’s unprofitable…”, says one of the girls.

All-in-one: driver, medical officer and first-aid kit

On the fields, there is no place to hide from the scorching sun, nor to store food and drink.

The women have to bring their own food and water. There are no medical workers to provide first aid for sun or heat stroke. Workers continue working even during the hottest mid-day hours, when the temperature can soar to 38-40 degrees.

To the question, “what do you do when someone has sunstroke?” one of the girls points to the driver and says, “he is our walking first-aid kit!”

The other workers joke that he’s “a doctor, a nurse and a first-aid kit. But we don’t particularly have any problems on the fields – we’re already used to this weather, we don’t melt”.

This is the fifth tomato harvest of the year. Each process lasts about 12 – 20 days up until the fall. Business owners generally take refugees from towns and local women.

Local women receive the same salaries as the refugees, but the work is slightly easier for them given that they can relax in their homes for a few hours during lunch. Refugee harvesters have no such luxury.

As for labor contracts, the number of working hours and other rights, these women say nothing. They say, “if we demand something, they will take others [workers]. And there are so many competitors…”

Law and regulation

Seasonal work, like all other types of labor, is regulated by the Labor Code of the Republic of Azerbaijan; all relations in the field of labor must be regulated by a labor contract by law.

Lawyer Khalid Aghaliyev pointed out that according to the code, all working conditions, hours and days of rest, protection of employee’s rights, social and other insurance issues, wages should be fixed in these contracts and concluded between the seasonal worker and the entrepreneur.

“Also, working hours can not exceed 8 hours within a five-day weekly schedule. If the weekly schedule is six-day, then the entrepreneur has no right to demand from the worker more than 7 hours a day,” Khalid Aghaliyev says.

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