With rising incomes and availability of better options, the age-old tradition of working on “annual contract” round the year without a paid holiday is fast disappearing.
The annual contract is executed between a farmer engaged in agriculture work and a labourer, who was called “seer” decades ago. As per the contract system earlier, a labourer would get a fixed share of the produce in lieu of his labour. With the passage of time, the tradition underwent a change, and the fixed share of produce gave way to fixed cash amount for the whole year.
This way, the farmers would get permanent labourers for their fields and latter year-long regular work, food and shelter. Getting advance money even before the commencement of the work, which usually started from first of Harh (desi month) or June 15, was the main reason due to which many labourers signed up the annual contract.
“Earlier, “seeri” (contractual worker) was used to be treated like a family member by the farming community. There was always a feeling of mutual trust between the farmer and the worker. But nowadays, farmers feel insecure if they pay most of the fixed amount in advance, as many labourers tend to leave work midway and refuse to pay back the money,” said Sukhmander Singh, a farmer from Khara village. Earlier, big farmers, too, allegedly exploited engaged workers, he added.
“There is hardly anybody from the economically weaker section who is ready to take up agriculture work. Most youth prefer working at rice mills, marriage palaces as waiters or as daily wagers in cities. With the improving education standards, some of them get good jobs.
However, many youth work for a few days and then spend the hard-earned money on useless things. Many in the villages can be seen idle and their mainstay is their elders, who are doing some work,” said Gurwinder Singh Chahal, a farmer from Jhakherwala village.
“We do not like to hire a contract worker, but get all work in the fields done on a contract basis. Paying in advance creates problems as there are chances of the relationship going sour later as the farmers want work for the already paid money while the workers expect more,” said Lakhvir Singh, a farmer.
Dilbagh Singh, 25, who has spent 15 years as an annual contract worker, said it is still a better option than the day-to-day basis irregular work.
“I have been working as an annual contract worker (seeri) for the past 15 years. I had signed up the first contract for Rs. 8,500 for a year. Next year, I again signed it for Rs. 50,000; half of the amount was received in advance. Agriculture work is not tiresome because most of the work is done mechanically in the farms. It is mostly a duty to look after crops, feed a few cattle and do some menial jobs for the master. An annual contract means assured regular work and food,” said Baggi.
“My elder brother has also signed up a contract with some farmer of Aulakh village for Rs. 54,000 for the next year and has got Rs. 40,000 in advance without any interest to buy land close to his house. Five men from my village have been engaged by farmers for Rs. 63,000 each for the next year as they also know driving,” he added.
Dharam Singh from Panjgrain Kalan village said, “The annual contract rates have also gone up corresponding to the rising labour cost. The contract now ranges from Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 65,000 annually. One man from Malke village is working for Rs. 1 lakh in my village. Though most of the youths from the labour community are reluctant to sign up annually, most farmers cannot afford to hire permanent labour, as they also live from hand to mouth. Many people have started selling off milch animals to bear the expenses.”