Women labourers engaged in various stages of tobacco production receive a little over half the wages that men workers get, a common practice throughout the country
With a group of men and women, Alema Khatun has reached the sandy bank of the River Teesta in the early morning to sun-dry Motihari tobacco leaves – used as smokeless tobacco.
There are thousands of leaves to dry. Alema along with her fellow workers will lay each leaf on the sand and keep turning them at regular intervals to ensure even drying. The work must go on till noon when the sand turns very hot under the scorching sun.
"We need to work sitting on the ground or in a bent posture. We feel a severe backache afterwards," Alema says, adding, "While handling the leaves, we inhale the poison of these leaves. We lose appetite and feel feverish."
However, after a day's baking in the sun, Alema and her female co-workers will get a lower payment than their male counterparts. This discrimination in wages is a reflection of a perception prevailing across the informal sector that a woman cannot work as much as a man can.
Women labourers engaged in various stages of tobacco production receive a little over half the wages that men get. This is a common practice everywhere, all the way from the northern part of the country to the Hill Tracts in the south.
According to Rezaul Karim, agriculture extension officer in Mohalchhari upazila under Khagrachhari district, male workers in the upazila each get Tk300-400 per day, while women are paid Tk200-250 each.
Rezaul also mentioned that the government discourages the cultivation of tobacco and, accordingly, the Department of Agriculture Extension provides zero support to tobacco farmers.
Aside from the poorly paid women labourers, unpaid labour plays a huge role in most parts of the cultivation and drying process of tobacco leaves.
Tobacco is basically cultivated through contract farming arrangements between tobacco companies and farmers.
Tobacco cultivation requires a lot of fertiliser and pesticide inputs. Pesticides are applied even at the seedling stage, making tobacco cultivation very harmful for the health of both farmers and the soil.
Besides, tobacco is more vulnerable to hailstorms, nor'westers and diseases compared to other crops.
To bear the cost of production, tobacco companies provide farmers with cash in advance. The price of the final yield is determined by the companies based on the quality of the produce, which is often affected by the aforementioned hazards.
In the case of a damaged harvest, farmers get a lower price, and are even required to pay back with the next yield.
To ensure getting better prices, farmers engage all their family members in the production process. Along with women, children also have to engage in work.
These women and children never get paid as they work for the family.
Farmers of Daulatpur upazila under Kushtia district have been cultivating tobacco for over 30 years.
Mabia Khatun, a housewife from the upazila, said, "During the cultivation of the Virginia leaves – used for premier cigarettes, we have to assist in fertilising and weeding the field.
"After the harvesting of the leaves, we work for 72 hours at a stretch for loading leaves into the kiln for curing. Leaves need three days of curing inside the kiln. During that time, we cannot leave the furnace as we need to keep feeding fuel in it. We can neither sleep nor have the time to take rest."
Many families, especially women, now want to discontinue tobacco cultivation, but entrapped by a damaged yield and consequent debt to tobacco companies or being allured by the payment made by the companies for the input in advance, farmers often find it difficult to come out of it.
As it turns out, the whole process negatively impacts women's decision-making about food production. Although they work hard, they do not have any say in decision-making. Neither do women have any control over the income earned from tobacco farming.
"I do not get paid for the work I do in the cultivation of tobacco because I am working for my husband," said Mabia Khatun.