A bitter harvest

Print edition : August 14, 1999

Workers in the tea and coffee plantations at Manjolai are pressing for higher wages and better working and living conditions, but the management's "adamant" attitude has hindered a negotiated settlement.

THE tea and coffee plantations at Manjolai, whose workers have been involved in a year-long struggle against their employers, are situated in the Western Ghats in Ambasamudram taluk in Tirunelveli district. Spread over forest land measuring about 3,500 h ectares at altitudes ranging from 100 metres to 1,867 metres, the plantations are owned by the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation (formerly the Bombay Burmah Trading Company). They consist of a group of tea estates - Singampatti Group - which is divided i nto three units: Manjolai estate (three divisions), Manimuthar estate (two divisions) and Oothu estate (two divisions). The three units account for a total workforce of 2,386, of whom 743 are temporary workers. Over 80 per cent of the workers are Dalits.

The 133-year-old BBTC entered the plantation business in 1913 and has been at the centre of one controversy or another from the time it acquired the forest land in 1929 on a 99-year lease under agreed conditions from the Singampatti zamin. The company ma de a down payment of Rs.88 per hectare and agreed to pay an annual rent of Rs.4.32 per hectare. On February 19, 1952, the land was taken over from the ownership of the zamindar and vested with the Government under the Madras Estates Abolition Act, 1948. However, the Board of Revenue, in its proceedings of August 13, 1958, stated that although the company was not entitled to any rights in or to remain in possession of, the land leased out to it, on or after February 19, 1952, it could continue to use the land subject to certain additional conditions that were deemed necessary in the public interest. The conditions, which placed restrictions on the company in respect of clearing forests and selling timber, were modified whenever the need arose. On a numb er of occasions the company faced charges that it had violated the conditions. A State Forest Department complaint against the company in this regard is pending in the High Court (Frontline, August 23, 1996).

The Singampatti Group is a major exporter of tea; its annual production is eight million kilograms, valued at about Rs.20 crores. The group's annual coffee production amounts to one million kilograms. In keeping with the growing global awarness about pre servation of the environment, the BBTC pioneered the organic cultivation of tea in 1988 at its Oothu estate. Organic tea is grown on 312 hectares with no chemical inputs, fertilizers or pesticides. The black and green organic tea, produced at its factory (with a capacity of one million kilograms a year) established in 1992, is exported to Japan, the United States, Germany and other European countries. Today BBTC is world's single largest producer of organic tea.

Plucking tea at Manjolai. Discontent among the estate workers is growing, and work-stoppages owing to strikes and lockouts affected operations on the plantations in the past year.-P. SEETHARAMAN

Work-stoppage in the estates owing to strikes and lockouts since August 1998 has affected the company's operations in the last one year and cut into its earnings. Although the strike in the three estates was called by a relatively new political organisat ion, the Puthiya Tamizhagam (P.T.), under the banner of its nascent trade union, the Puthiya Thamizhagam Tea Estate Workers Union, it sustained itself for nearly a year with the support of a vast majority of the workforce. It came at a time when disconte nt among the workers was at its peak: the 2,000 workers were agitated over their "deplorable" living and working conditions and dissatisfied with the existing recognised trade unions. The conditions were ripe for the entry of P.T. founder-president K. Kr ishnasamy, who unsuccessfully contested the 1998 Lok Sabha elections from the Tenkasi (Reserve) constituency, within which the Singampatti Group estates fall.

The main grievance of the Manjolai estate workers relates to the non-implementation of the Plantations Labour Act (1951) in its true spirit, says J. Hemachandran, president of the Tamil Nadu unit of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and vice-presi dent of the All-India Plantation Workers Federation. He told Frontline in Nagercoil on July 31 that the management had failed to provide the workers many of the facilities they were entitled to under the Act. Their houses were not fully fit for oc cupation; many of them were wet. Clean drinking water was not supplied to them. There were also problems related to medicare and working conditions.

A VISIT to the estates and interaction with a cross-section of the workers confirmed many of these grievances. Barely 50 per cent of the employees had been provided houses, one worker said. "Most of the houses are old and dilapidated, unfit for living du ring the monsoon," said another. A woman worker said, "There are cases where five families are forced to live in a single house." Medical facilities were inadequate, workers complained. Not all of them are provided free medical service. Temporary workers are not eligible for medicare facilities when they are not on duty. Even dependent children above the age of eight are excluded from the scheme. "The medicines are expensive and if we go to the plains for treatment, we do not get full reimbursement," sa id a worker. Their complaints to the supervisors have drawn no response. They also complained of favouritism in attending to the workers' needs.

Most workers expressed their displeasure with the four recognised unions, which included unions affiliated to the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). The two other unions, the Labour Progressive Fe deration and the Anna Thozhirsangha Peravai, are under the control of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which rules the State, and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), respectively. The workers said that the unrecognised union affili ated to the CITU was sensitive to their interests but was too small to wield any influence with the management. (Under the check-off system practised in the estates, the managements collect subscriptions for the unions from the workers by recovering the amounts from their salaries; only those unions that subscribe to this arrangement are recognised. The CITU opposes this system on principle and so remains unrecognised.)

The CITU-led Tirunelveli District Estate Workers Union's president M. Rajangam said that although the union had not been recognised, its candidates had been elected to the works committees. He said that these committees' powers were limited: the elected representatives did take up the workers' grievances with the management but they could do so only up to a certain level. Workers complained that many of their "customary rights" - for instance, the right to have kitchen gardens, rear cattle and build sma ll annexes to their houses when their families expanded - were gradually withdrawn. In addition, the workload had increased over the years in all four plantation operations - plucking, pruning, applying fertilizers, manures and pesticides and processing.

(The Revenue Divisional Officer, who recently investigated a complaint that the Manjolai estate management took an anti-worker stance, reported to the Government after an on-the-spot inquiry that the management's attitude was adamant and that there was n o give-and-take. The report said that the workers were affected by increased workloads, particularly in pruning. Workers did not have a single shed in the workspots where they could eat their food. As for the redress of grievances, the report said that o nly those who were close to the management could get things done, for instance in getting houses repaired. It is the prevalence of such conditions that had created discontent among the workers, the report said.)

IT was in such circumstances, when discontent among the workers was growing, that Krishnasamy, who is also a member of the State Assembly, entered the scene. He organised the workers and took up their cause. After two rounds of conciliation talks held at the initiative of the district administration failed, the workers went on strike on August 20, 1998. That day, in violation of a prohibitory order imposed by the Government, Krishnasamy led a demonstration to press for the implementation of 21 demands; one of the demands was a revision of the workers' daily wage from Rs.53 to Rs.150. The charter of demands also alleged that the workers were treated as bonded labour.

Following up on this, about 1,500 estate workers staged a demonstration in front of the District Collectorate at Tirunelveli, about 100 km from Manjolai. From then on it is a story of struggles, strikes and lock-outs. The management said that the grievan ces, particularly the one alleging that workers were treated as bonded labour, were "imaginary" and the demand for a three-fold rise in wages was "unrealistic". It also contended that wages were paid under an industry-level State-wide bipartite settlemen t, a revision of which was due after January 1, 1999. The recognised unions endorsed the management's views, even going so far as to take out advertisement space in newspapers.

IS the demand for a three-fold rise in wage "unreasonable"? Hemachandran does not think so. He said that if the Government had accepted in 1956 the recommendation of a tribunal it had appointed to revise the plantation workers' wages that a daily wage of Rs.2.25 linked to the cost of living index be paid, the workers would now be entitled to a daily wage of Rs.98. But the Government modified the recommendation and fixed the wage at Rs.1.72; it further did not link the wages to the cost of living index. Krishnasamy said that a wage hike of the magnitude sought by the estate workers had not been considered unusual in the case of government employees, university teachers and employees of public sector undertakings. He pointed out that the Fifth Pay Commis sion of the State Government had revised the basic pay of "office assistants" from Rs.750 to Rs.2,550.

Krishnasamy followed up on his complaint in respect of the "bonded labour" status of the workers with the National Human Rights Commission; its Director-General D.R. Karthikeyan visited the estate and after a detailed inquiry concluded that there was no bonded labour; he, however, stated that some of the workers' genuine grievances needed to be resolved. At his initiative, a settlement was reached; under this, the issue of a wage hike was to be decided at State-level tripartite talks. The management agr eed to take action on certain demands relating to amenities and working conditions. Meanwhile, following an interim arrangement at the State level, the daily wage was raised to Rs.63.88. Work resumed in the estates, but trouble erupted soon thereafter, t his time over the working hours. The workers wanted the time they took to walk from the reporting point to the workspot, which could be 4 km in some instances, to be included in the working hours. The management did not agree. The workers on duty at the farthest workspots cut back on the management-fixed working hours by about one and a half hours. The management penalised them by deducting half a day's wages on such days.

Estate workers complain that their houses, such as this, are unfit for occupation, and that despite several representations the management has done nothing to improve the living conditions.-P. SEETHARAMAN

This tussle continued for about three months. The workers struck work demanding restoration of the cut in their wages. When they attempted to stage a demonstration before the Tirunelveli Collectorate on June 6 and 7, over 600 of them were arrested and se nt to the Tiruchi jail. It was to demand their release that the July 23 procession in Tirunelveli, which resulted in the death of 17 persons following the brutal police action, was held.

In Hemachandran's view, the Manjolai estates' problems became unmanageable only because of the non-implementation of the provisions in the Plantations Labour Act, 1951, relating to workers' welfare in their true spirit and the management's failure to evo lve a grievance-redress machinery and an inspection mechanism. He said that even the provision relating to the appointment of labour welfare officers had not been implemented.

On July 26, the estate workers who were arrested on June 6 and 7 were released; with this, the dispute relating to th the wage cut appears to be the only unresolved problem for now. Hemachandran said that at the State-level negotiations on a revision of wages for plantation workers held in June 1999, the unions had demanded the fixation of monthly wages. The employers' representatives had sought time to consult their trade organisations.

While the strike continues, about 400 of the 2,000 workers are reporting for work. Most of the workers who participated in the July 23 procession and bore the brunt of the police brutality are yet to return to the estates. Some of them stay as guests in Arockiyanathapuram, a Dalit hamlet about 10 km from Tirunelveli, partaking of food prepared in a common open-air kitchen with the support of the local people. Although several of them had suffered injuries or lost their close relatives in the police repr ession, they expressed their determination to continue their struggle.

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