In Wayanad district, one can’t miss the miles of cultivated fields stretched out ahead, with plantain and paddy on one side, and coffee, tea and some arecanut on the other. Women and men work tirelessly in these fields from 8 am to 6 pm, and in the evening they queue up to get their daily wages. Unfortunately, the share is not equal.
Sitting on a narrow walkway in the middle of a paddy field on the banks of the Baveli river, 45-year-old Geetha, who belongs to the Adiya tribal community, says, "Men and women do the same work, if you ask me. We work more as we (women) don't take breaks like them. We only take a 30 minutes break for lunch. But at the end of the day, we are paid Rs 300 and they get Rs 500," she said.
This has been a practice for the last several decades, not just in Wayanad but in many parts of Kerala. The difference in wages given to men and women, particularly for agricultural work, can be stark. Women are also often denied work due to the misguided perception that they are too weak.
Leela, a 39-year-old from Koova colony of Vellarada in Wayanad, says she never gets work at the plantain plantation near where they live. “They never call us for work in the plantation as it requires working with a sickle and spade. They think that we will not be able to do it. Even if we plead they won't agree. Once in a while, we might be called to remove weeds and bushes and get paid Rs 300 for a day," she says.
Tribal women who live near plantain fields depend primarily on MNREGA work, where they receive Rs 280. "For MNREGA work, both men and women are paid the same," she adds.
Kalyani, who is a 65-year-old labourer from Kudiyanmala of Kannur district, says that this has been the practice ever since she can recall. "Earlier, it was Rs 100 for women and Rs 200 for men in agriculture works. We were called to clean bushes and weeds. Over time, money increased a bit but the difference remained. In our region now, men are paid Rs 700 to Rs 1000. We get a maximum of Rs 400," she says.
One of the reasons this practice is in place is due to landlords who have created a system that hires men for heavy lifting and other physical labor, while hiring women for supposedly less physically demanding labour.
That sentiment was echoed by a cultivator who owns 15 acres of land: "Whatever they say, women don't do as much work as male labourers. Men can effortlessly dig and do work using tools. How can we pay the same wages for women," he asks.
This stereotyping not only forbids women from doing certain kinds of work, but leads to a situation where their income is less. Sarada, a labourer from Kasaragod district, says, "I like planting banana or coconut trees. But we are forbidden because they claim it is tough.”
As per an order from the Labour Commission, released in 2017, the minimum wage in paddy fields in Kerala is Rs 410, but many tribal women in Wayanad do not even receive that amount. In other districts such as Alappuzha, Kannur and Thrissur, the minimum wage is often ensured for labourers.
Similarly, while labourers who take care of livestock are entitled to get Rs 480 per day, the women who help rear goats and cows in Wayanad get Rs 300 per day. Male labourers, however, receive the Rs 490 minimum wage for their work on agricultural fields.
When asked about women being paid less for their work, Chuppi, a 60-year-old woman from Thirunelli in Wayanad, expressed her amusement. “Women are paid less. Who has questioned that? This is the first time I am hearing such a thing," she laughs.
Velichi, another tribal woman from Vaishali of Wayanad, recalls the huge difference in wages for labourers who peel areca nuts. "Earlier when we went to peel arecanuts, we were faster than the men, but we just got half [the money]. In the paddy field, it's we who remain in a bent position and plant for hours. Men might be using spades or shovels, but we were paid less," she says.