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The double work burden: work at home and in the field

The double work burden: work at home and in the field

In 1963, the Rural Worker Statute came into force. It prescribed the registration of the labour contract in the workers labour card. Although this practice was not always brought into effect, it assured holidays and the Xmas bonus, a remunerated weekly day off, retirement after years of service, retirement for disability, 90-day-payment of pregnancy allowance etc. This Statute also established maternity leave for women: six weeks before and six weeks after giving birth (84 days in all), on full pay. The present Constitution guarantees 120 days maternity leave. This provision, though, has resulted in the increase of informal labour agreements, without a written contract of employment (Rossini, 1975,1978; Sigaud, 1979; Barros Junior, 1972, 1980; Gonzales and Bastos, 1977). Informal work, without any link to a property or a group, has caused great difficulties for the organisation of women as a professional category (Paulilo, 1976).

In 1977, 74.1 % of workers declared they had labour cards, while in 1986 almost all of them had it, except 4.4% of women. There was, however, a big gap between having the labour card and being registered, but the actual figures representing such a gap are difficult to estimate.

Another factor that encouraged the modernisation. of agriculture and intensified the employment of the salaried and temporary work force in the sugar cane plantation was the government incentives, especially after the implementation, in 1975, of the "Proálcool" (a government-sponsored program for fuel alcohol). This government support accelerated the incorporation of new lands, thus increasing the sugar cane area but caused a decrease of areas of subsistence agriculture as well as of areas traditionally dedicated to food production. This does not mean, though, that all spaces were occupied. In fact, there were vast uncultivated areas, spaces occupied by cattle, and residual forest areas, resulting in increased environmental pollution.

A large number of women became permanent/temporary salaried workers in the sugar cane jobs —reaping, tillage, weeding, fertilising -, and the contract, either with the sugar mill or with the contractor, was generally renewed each semester.

The number of female workers varied throughout the year, as mentioned earlier. According to data provided by the Institute for Agricultural Economy (Instituto de Economia Agrícola), the number increased in the months of April and June. This period corresponded to the beginning of the activities of the sugar cane harvest when a larger number were recruited.

Women usually represented 15% to 20% of the workers employed in all activities. During the time between harvests, this percentage would rise to 35% to 40%. In the course of the harvest, however, due to the male migration, there was a clear imbalance. There was also an increase in the number of women engaged in reaping activities: maids, washerwomen, cleaners, and "house wives" disappeared from the cities, as they all went to work for the harvest.

Comparing the number of workers during the harvest and during the time between harvests, it will be noted that although the number of women was higher throughout the harvest, the percentage was much lower as a consequence of the massive recruitment of men, who came from several regions of the country, predominantly from the Northeast and the Jequitinhona Valley, in the state of Minas Gerais.

The relative participation of the family members engaged in the rural labour force was 80.5% in 1977 and 92.8% in 1986. Regarding the activity with which people had initiated their life as labourers, in 1977 it was sugar cane for more than 58% of the men and 38% of the women and in 1986 the percentage was 60% for men and 82.2% for women.

In 1977, 56.6% of the men and 61.8% of the women were already working at the age of 14, and this percentage remained relatively stable in 1986: 52.6% and 62.3%, respectively.

It was difficult to obtain information about the incomes gained from the work: the people interviewed either would volunteer no information whatsoever or would raise or lower the actual amount and rarely answered the questions properly. This is a very natural human inhibition, rendered more intense by the fact that they felt their conditions to be absolutely precarious. Even so, it was possible to verify that although there was no sign of discrimination between the work of women and that of men, female workers normally received less when engaged as wage-earners, and that when engaged to earn by productivity, their yield was generally lower and, therefore, they received less than the male workers.

A study of the average annual income was carried out, considering the minimum wage (MW) of that period. The results are the following: in 1977, men received 1.3 MW and women, 0.85 MW; in 1986 there was a significant "improvement" - 1.8 MW for men and 1.4 MW for women. (The monthly minimum wage was approximately US$ 110).

In the sugar cane plantation, tillage was considered a female task, since, in the smaller farmholds, women had traditionally undertaken this task. Tillage activities involved the transplanting of the sugar cane tholepin to the furrows —sometimes whole sugar cane seeds were used and women had to tear them into pieces inside the furrows, cover with earth, and do the first fertilising. In these activities, women were sometimes helped by children. This job was seldom paid by production if done by women, as it was for men. Nowadays, fertilisation is to a great extent carried out by man-driven tractors. There is no record of female tractor drivers in commercial agriculture.

The reaping of sugar cane for milling for which both men and women were hired was paid by production. With the increase in mechanisation manual reaping was carried out only in places where the sugar cane had already fallen down or in places where access was difficult. During the survey, no women contractors nor women holding positions were found and only two references were found in the literature to this. However, it is possible to affirm that women were engaged in all other activities.

As for the double work burden, it was observed that women, after a long working-day at the sugar cane plantation, continued to work back home where they had to face the so called "non-productive activities''.

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