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Indian Indentured wages

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Ravi Dev

The Indian Indentureds (Girmitiyas”) were brought to work in the fields – to replace the “field slaves”, and not the house slaves or those who worked in the factories, even though this would begin to change in the decades following the abolition of indentureship in 1917.
As field labourers, their wages were not as straightforward as was described in the indenture contract they signed in India. Rather than daily wages, over 90% of them were paid for “tasks” completed. Since these tasks were established by the managers and overseers, and were based on the work performed by the seasoned ex-enslaved Africans, there were very few Indentureds who could complete their assigned task in one day. That task would have to be completed the following day, but that time was not counted.
The bulk of the work in the estate fields was forking, cane cutting, punt-loading, and weeding. For the first three tasks, able-bodied men were preferred, but strong women were also assigned to punt loading of the “cut-and-drop” canes. Weeding was for men of inferior physique and for women.

Indian immigrants forking to aerate cane roots

For field work, even though they were contracted to work seven hours per day, work generally lasted ten to twelve hours; and, as such, the workers left their homes before sunrise and arrived on foot after sunset. During the “off” season, when factories were not “grinding”, the hours of work were the stated seven to eight hours, excluding the time spent trudging the one to five miles between the logies and the fields and back. Workers would generally work six days a week, with Sunday off, but Saturday was truncated somewhat, because they had to show up to be paid.
Incidentally, husbands were fined if their wives did not show up to work.
According to a 1924 report, the weekly average wage (including for females as well as males, children, invalids and convalescents) for the period of 4 years ending 1912 was $1.17. On the assumption that all the workers worked for 6 days, the daily average is 19.6 cents. Overall, throughout the indentureship period, the average wage of males did not average more than 1 shilling, and for females, half of that – even as the cost-of-living rose inexorably.
It was only due to the workers’ rental of small plots of land — averaging between a quarter of an acre to an acre — from the estates for some $4-$8, that they were able to survive by planting rice, vegetables, and later ground provisions, or minding a cow. Yet, from this income, most squeezed their bellies to save and accumulate small savings. The official study done in 1924 showed that, after working for ten years to qualify for a full or assisted return passage, an average worker would have had a DEFICIT between income and expenditure of $288.60!!

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