Munnar: Battle not over

Print edition : November 13, 2015

Women plantation workers of Munnar, who were on a strike demanding increased wages and other allowances, at a rally on October 1. Photo: K.K. Mustafah

THE 40-day agitation that brought many of Kerala’s tea, rubber, coffee and cardamom plantations to the brink of permanent closure ended on October 15. But the tentative agreement between the representatives of the registered trade unions and the managements in the State’s Plantation Labour Committee (PLC) has left all parties in the dispute unhappy.

Pengal Otrumai, the nascent movement of women workers of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations company in Munnar, which originally launched the struggle and brought long-pending grievances over wages, inequality and caste- and gender-related disparities to national attention, could not participate in the PLC meeting as it was not yet a registered trade union.

Therefore, the deal, brokered by the State government at closed-door meetings of the PLC just before the preparations for the local body elections began in Kerala, has left the women workers with no option but to stop their agitation in the streets of Munnar, along with that of the united front of the trade unions (see “Storm in a tea garden”, Frontline, October 30).

Many of the grievances raised by Pengal Otrumai remained unaddressed in the end, with political parties and unions keen to end the stalemate before the campaign for the local body elections began. The results of the elections are widely expected to be crucial for the future course of Kerala’s coalition politics, as Assembly elections are due in about six months and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying its best to make an impact in a State where it is yet to win an Assembly or parliamentary seat.

Nearly three lakh plantation workers had gone on strike following the example of Pengal Otrumai, bringing, among others, the tea and rubber plantations in Kerala, which contribute nearly Rs.21,000 crore to the State exchequer annually, to a stop. Its effects were felt in almost all hill districts in Kerala.

However, while their most pressing demand was for a 100 per cent hike in daily minimum wages, their struggle, which had taken even the established trade unions by surprise, resulted in a never-before promise of an increase of 30 per cent for tea plantation workers (from a daily minimum rate of Rs.232).

The unions and the managements have reportedly agreed to increase the wages to Rs.301 for tea and coffee plantation workers, Rs.330 in the cardamom sector, and Rs.381 in rubber plantations. The total emoluments are expected to go up to Rs.436, Rs.478 and Rs.552, respectively.

While explaining the decisions of the PLC meeting, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy also announced that a one-man commission would be appointed to study the other issues raised by the workers and said that the government would hold discussions with their representatives soon after the elections, scheduled in two phases for November 2 and 5. The agreement is, however, yet to be signed. Pengal Otrumai leaders said their agitation was stopped temporarily because the women workers could not afford to go on without wages until the elections were over. They are set to relaunch their struggle if a satisfactory solution does not emerge in the meetings promised by the government after the elections.

They have decided to launch a union and field candidates in the elections, seeking to have representatives in wards in Munnar, Devikulam and Pallivasal panchayats of the politically sensitive Idukki district.

R. Krishnakumar