On a tightrope

Published : May 19, 2006 00:00 IST

Life is not easy for coir workers in Kerala, but they are now more aware of their rights. BY T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

BY T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram

THEIR worn-out fingers and the dirt under their nails do not leave an imprint on the finished product. Indeed, they do not get to see the final product at all. Much of it is exported, and some used by those in the country who can afford it. These are the coir workers, most of them women.

Women are employed in various stages of coir production - right from the peeling of the coconut husk to the making of ropes from the fine fibre - and form the backbone of the industry. Much of the rope-making work is done on rudimentary spinning wheels and the peeling is done with crude tools. The operations are mostly non-mechanised.

Much of the process of coir-making takes place on the backwaters. The husk is peeled and soaked in the water for six months. The fibre is separated from the skin and the pith of the husk; this is done partly manually and partly with a rudimentary machine. The pith, which is the black residue, is used as fertilizer. The women are employed in the stages that involve a good deal of manual labour. Men do the heavy operations of taking the soaked husk out of the water. The quality of coir, its strength and sheen, depends on how long it has been soaked.

Coir workers in Kerala's backwaters have to deal with all the uncertainties of the unorganised sector - irregular employment and insufficient wages included. Yet they stand out in their awareness of their rights, something that they have acquired through their association with the Coir Workers' Centre, which is affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). They are firm about the number of working hours - eight hours a day with breaks for lunch and tea - and display a rare solidarity and boldness of expression. The older women seem more vocal than their younger mates, having lived through the phase of struggle conducted by the CITU in the 1970s. The bulk of the coir workers are from backward or Scheduled Caste communities.

Anathalavattom Anandan is the general secretary of the Coir Workers' Centre. Associated with the CITU for more than three decades, he was present when the centre was established. He narrated an incident that perhaps heralded the beginning of the coir workers' movement for better wages. In the early 1950s, Communist leader A.K. Gopalan was invited to Alapuzha to see the conditions of the coir workers. At Alapuzha, he went looking for a worker. He stood outside this worker's house and called out for him repeatedly, but there was no answer. After a while, he saw the worker's wife walk into the house. A little later, the man emerged, alone. When Gopalan, or as he was called, asked why it took him so long to come out, the man said that he and his wife had only one mundu (dhoti) between them. So when one was out, the other was forced to stay in. AKG had expected to see poverty and exploitation at Alapuzha, but he was not prepared for such misery.

In 1952, the Communist Party of India (CPI) launched a struggle for a wage increase of one anna. In 1954, the government declared a minimum wage of Re.1 a day, that is, 16 annas. But employers were reluctant to pay. The CPI, however, was by then a force to be reckoned with in the context of the 1938 and 1946 Punnapra-Vayalar struggles. (Punnapra and Vayalar, two villages in Alapuzha district, were the centres of militant struggles of coir and other workers in the district in 1938. This was the period when the organised working class of Travancore launched its first political general strike in support of the democratic movement for responsible government in the State.)

The employers conceded, but only gradually. In 1964, daily wages were increased by over an anna; still, workers usually got less than a rupee a day. They would start work at 6 a.m., and were not home before 10 p.m. They were given black coffee once during the day, and the cost was deducted from their wages.

It took a lot of struggle to ensure a minimum wage for the workers. Even now, however, it can be quite a struggle to keep the minimum wage going and sometimes the workers get as little as Rs.60 and Rs.70, though the minimum daily wage is now over Rs.100.

Irregular employment is a major problem in this industry, which is one reason why coir workers are keen to belong to a union. A typical entrepreneur is the small producer who has a unit near the backwaters, with 20 to 30 looms and a few motorised ratts. Such a unit usually functions without registration and employs workers only when raw material is available. Typically, there will be a shed where women do the spinning, while the men prepare the bales from the rope.

Mercykutty Amma, a former legislator of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and a CITU national vice-president, said that over the past four years coir workers only had work for 30 to 40 days in a year.

Most of the 400,000 workers in the coir industry are organised under the Coir Workers' Centre. According to CITU State secretary P.K. Gurudasan, only 8 per cent of the total coir workforce, around 32,000 workers, are employed in big factories. The rest are employed by small-scale entrepreneurs. Nearly 250,000 lakh workers are organised in cooperatives.

Kerala is synonymous with coir. This industry is over 200 years old and has evolved from a domestic activity to a partially mechanised industry employing thousands of people. Along with cashew, handloom, beedi-rolling, pottery and other handicrafts, coir-making is categorised as a traditional industry of the State. According to a report prepared by the International Congress on Kerala Studies by the AKG Centre for Research and Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, the traditional sector has the largest share of industrial workers employed in Kerala.

The Coir Workers Centre was formed in 1971. Anandan was the joint secretary and Susheela Gopalan the president. Apart from successfully stalling the use of machines, the union organised small producers against husk dealers to fix a reasonable floor price for thondu or husk. The union wanted a Husk Control Order under the Essential Commodities Act, so that the bigger players could not marginalise the smaller ones by buying up the husk at higher rates.

The State government wanted the Centre to bring about suitable legislation to facilitate this, but there was no response. But at the State level, it was decided that in every district, depending on the content of fibre in the husk, the prices would be fixed. The bigger players were reluctant to accept this, but the small producers supported the unions. Husk dealers were also told to sell 30 per cent of their total collection to cooperative societies; they were free to sell the remaining 70 per cent to anyone they chose.

This arrangement was, however, scrapped later. Now the union has once again revived the struggle to restore the Husk Control Order. Anandan and others in the union feel that if the government collected the thondu, that alone could provide regular employment for 400,000 workers for 300 days. At present, big players are known to purchase raw husk at low rates and sell the finished products abroad at high prices; coir workers, however, do not get to share the huge profits.

Welfare schemes such as pension, housing and health programmes were introduced for coir workers for the first time in 1987 under the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government of E.K. Nayanar. However, such schemes failed to benefit workers in the long run with many aged workers not getting their pension in time.

The establishment of a strong cooperative system during the tenure of the first Left Front government led by E.M.S. Namboodiripad was one of the most significant steps to liberate coir workers from the grip of moneylenders. The cooperative societies continued to operate despite obstacles. In the early 1990s, state support to these societies was reduced as a result of neoliberal policies.

Now, there is a lot of state pressure on the workers to switch to the self-help group (SHG) formula. Nearly 200 cooperative units have already converted to SHGs. Mercykutty Amma says this is a ploy to "finish off trade union activities".

Workers organised in self-financing SHGs do not have a sense of solidarity with the rest of the workforce and do not enjoy the kind of state support that the cooperatives do. They might get easy loans, but have no cushion if things go wrong. If the cooperative movement collapses, the SHGs would be in no position to compete with the bigger players or to control prices that are usually set by exporters.

The union wants the government to make an allocation for social security benefits for coir workers. It says that the Central government, which spends Rs.14,548 crores on 47,971 Central government employees in Kerala, that is, an average of Rs. 30 lakhs on each employee in terms of welfare benefits, can afford to set aside Rs.5000 for every coir worker. For around 400,000 workers, the expenditure would be about Rs.200 crores. For the past 50 years, the investment has been Rs.750 a year for every coir worker - that is what the co-operative members get. Those outside the co-operatives do not get even this much.

If irregular employment is one problem in the industry that results from erratic supply of husk, the problem of excess production is another problem that frequently pushes down prices and, in turn, wages. Usually, as a small entrepreneur like Baiju would tell you, the exporters get to determine the price of coir and coir products. Exporters are crucial players and indeed, the income from exports has been steadily going up; in 2003-2004, it was Rs.404.5 crores; in 2004-2005, the value of coir exports was Rs.473 crores. If exporters push down prices, the smaller players are the first to take a hit and find themselves in a situation where they cannot pay the minimum wage to their employees.

The bigger players, too, are not immune to crises. Floor Co, for instance, used to employ 400 workers earlier; now there are only 80 left. Orders are few and there is a surplus of production. Not all machines at Floor Co are in use, and the workers are idle most of the time. The manager on duty explains that it is a case of "too many people having entered the business".

In 1967-69, a Left-led government fixed a distress price which ensured that exporters could not sell below the distress price, and would, in turn, pay a minimum price to the producers. But this practice was stopped when the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) came to power.

The crisis varies from place to place. In Alapuzha district, majority of the workers are on contract. They have no principal employer and are not directly employed. They are paid piece rate wages, which approximate Rs.133-Rs.200 a day.

Yet their wages are better than that of those who work for small producers, which prevents them from joining common struggles on issues concerning the coir industry as a whole. But even the piece-rate is exploitative if the length of every piece is allowed to increase. A minimum wage is fixed for 96 pieces of coir but the exporter can decide the length of the yarn. Ultimately, a worker ends up spinning 120 to 140 pieces of coir a day.

The bigger players in the industry have modernised their factories and use jute, and polyvinyl chloride to make ropes. This means that they are better able to withstand the fall in prices because production is more economical. Low costs of production in neighbouring States such as Tamil Nadu and the use of acrylic fibre have depressed the earnings of the small-scale coir entrepreneur. The decline of coconut production in the traditional coir-producing areas has increased the scarcity of coconut husk and fibre and this has made Kerala depend on fibre imports from Tamil Nadu. The increase in fibre prices in the last few years has also worsened the conditions of small producers and workers.

So, does the government plan to do anything about it? Gurudasan pointed out that the present UDF government's industrial policy had said that investing in the coir sector would be a waste.

Gurudasan and Anandan point out that the rising prices of essential commodities cut into the real wages of coir workers. The LDF has committed itself to introducing a minimum export price and a floor price, should it come to power in the State. It is also committed to increasing worker representation in the Coir Board.

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