Storm in a tea garden

A spontaneous agitation by a collective of women labourers has thrown Kerala’s plantation sector into disarray, caught its male-dominated trade unions off guard, and focussed public attention on the growing inequalities and gender-related disparities in the sector.

Published : Oct 14, 2015 12:30 IST

Pengal Otrumai members on strike in Munnar on September 10.

Pengal Otrumai members on strike in Munnar on September 10.

AN agitation demanding higher wages by a spontaneous collective of women labourers of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations (KDHP) company in Munnar has generated a lot of interest in Kerala for its novelty, the political strength it seemed to muster in quick time and the jolt it has given to the jaded trade union movement in the State.

Even as political parties were bracing for the upcoming elections to the local bodies on November 2 and 5, women workers from the tea gardens of Kerala claimed prime-time spots on television screens, catching everyone by surprise.

Their agitation has thrown Kerala’s plantation sector into disarray, caught its male-dominated trade unions off guard and, refreshingly, focussed public attention on the growing inequalities and gender-related disparities in the sector.

Within a week, the struggle spread, with trade unions that were found wanting initially and held at bay by the women too embracing their cause. Nearly three lakh plantation workers across the State, the majority of them women, then struck work demanding a revision in their daily wages to Rs.500 and a 20 per cent bonus. Even by October 7, despite several meetings of the Plantation Labour Committee (PLC) convened by the government, the managements refused to budge, claiming that such a hike would kill the already unviable plantation companies.

The women, under the banner “Pengal Otrumai” (Women’s Unity), soon gained the empathy of the entire State as they launched an indefinite satyagraha at Munnar and chose not to be part of the joint agitation of trade unions which commenced at the same time literally across the street, on the Kochi-Dhanushkodi National Highway 49.

The last wage-revision agreement in the plantation sector in Kerala had come into effect in May 2011. According to its provisions, a labourer who gathered the minimum quantity of 21 kilogram of leaves a day would get Rs.232 as her wage. The validity of that agreement came to an end on December 31, 2014. The workers have been demanding a wage revision ever since. In the 10 months that followed, eight PLC meetings were held, but the plantation managements were unwilling to raise the wages without a concurrent increase in the “output” of the workers. The government remained complacent; unrest grew among the workers.

On August 22, however, while the workers were all eagerly expecting a hike, the Kanan Devan management announced that a general body meeting of the shareholders of the company (which supposedly includes the workers too) had decided to cut the yearly bonus to 8.33 per cent. In 2013-2014, the company had declared a bonus of 19 per cent. This year, the management claimed, its profit had come down sharply.

This was the immediate trigger for the agitation. While the main trade unions sought to pursue routine measures for a solution, for the first time in history, frustrated women workers, increasingly suspicious of the motives of the union leaders, launched a go-slow agitation on their own.

It is an indication of how the units of the three main unions at the company—the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU)—misjudged the situation that they sought to chastise the workers jointly for the go-slow in the estates during the peak harvest month of September, limiting individual production to the minimum level of 21 kg. The women were in no mood to listen. According to some of them, the last straw was the officious notice issued jointly by the three unions reprimanding the workers for their actions.

Need-based unity

There are a total of 84 administrative divisions in the seven estates under the KDHP company and eight divisions in the two other estates directly under the control of the Tatas, the sole owners of all these estates from 1983, when the United Kingdom-based James Finlay and Company sold their shares in the Tata Finlay joint venture to them.

Women workers from all the 92 divisions chucked their daily routine and marched to the hill station of Munnar—a need-based unity of Dalit women labourers who shared the same history and language, belonged to the same class and caste, and spent their hard daily lives suffering together in picturesque tea gardens from daybreak until nightfall and then in the decrepit “labour lines” (residential quarters provided by the company). A leadership emerged from among them—Lissy Sunny, Gomathy, Rajeswari, Jayalaksmi and so on—names that meant nothing to mainstream Kerala until a day earlier but were suddenly on its face, seeking empathy and attention, with their decision to represent themselves before the managements and the government and seek solutions to their festering problems.

On the face of it, the demands of the women workers may seem mundane, no different from the routine salary negotiations that the trade unions engage in on their behalf before the managements every year. But the simple demand has many facets to it when it is raised by a so-far silent, marginalised community of Dalit women workers, bound together by the common thread of everyday misery, harsh working and living conditions, vexed labour relations and a long history of class, caste and gender discrimination. They shocked the State with the spontaneity of their outburst, broke free from the constraints of the male-dominated unions, and took to the streets and imposed themselves on the meeting venues at the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram.

It was evident that their protest was really against the unchanging everyday circumstances that were imposed on them not just by immediate circumstances but, historically too, as inheritors of a tradition of over a century or more of bondage, servitude and suffering. Their lot has worsened in the past two decades, with the price of tea and its exports plummeting and a crisis engulfing the industry. Since 1998, several hill district estates in Kerala have closed down and hundreds of workers have lost their jobs.

Participatory management scheme

The Kanan Devan Hill Plantations Company Ltd itself was born as an offshoot of the decision by Tata Tea to withdraw from its plantation operations in Munnar (an association which began in 1964 through its alliance with the tea giant and then owner of the plantations, James Finlay and Company) about a decade earlier. In 2005, Tata Tea (now Tata Global Beverages, the world’s second largest tea company) announced it was selling its Munnar plantations to the employees through an employee buyout and participatory management scheme.

Nearly 13,000 employees supposedly became (minor) “shareholders” of the new company, with a semblance of representation on the director board. The Tatas still owned 28.52 per cent of the shares (nearly 9 per cent more was jointly owned by the Tatas Welfare Trust and the KDHPCL) and retained the right to buy a share of the tea produced by the company at reduced rates. It also had the clout to decide the price of tea at the local auction market. Thus, as it released itself from the responsibility of running the plantations after decades of ownership, promising “long-term economic sustainability and better living conditions for its workers”, it had protected its own interests well. But what the so-called “employee buyout and participatory management scheme” did for the workers has become painfully evident within a decade, with the women workers launching their agitation.

According to several accounts, a large section of the estate workers are descendants of the slave labourers brought by the British (right from the mid-19th century when the first British owner, John Daniel Manro, acquired 588 acres (an acre is 0.4 hectare) in Munnar with permission from the maharajah of Poonjar) from Tamil Nadu to work in the early plantations at Munnar. Most of them belong to the Scheduled Castes such as Pallar, Parayar and Chakkiliar. (Local workers from Kerala have always been only a small percentage of the estate workforce.)

From very early days, management policies had been tuned to keep these labourers tethered to the estates and the labour lines. Laws to prevent them from going in search of other jobs or from shifting from one estate to the other were all a means to this end. Even after the abolishing of slavery, their conditions more or less remained unchanged; or soon they succumbed to new forms of “slavery”.

Changed living conditions

However, a dramatic transformation in their employment and living conditions and the lot of legal rights that these plantation workers enjoy today happened, no doubt, because of the involvement of trade unions in the plantation sector in Kerala. But complacency has set in, there are often allegations against individual union leaders of corruption and being hand in glove with the management, and a growing sense that the unions are losing their zeal and are, increasingly, a mere cog in the wheel.

Plucking tea leaves is a labour-intensive, time-consuming affair, but women (who constitute 70 per cent of the workers in the tea estates) have been traditionally engaged in it partly because they are more dextrous in the handling of the leaves, while the men are assigned other jobs such as removing weeds, spraying pesticides and applying fertilizers.

Work is supposed to start at eight in the morning and end by five, but invariably longer hours are the norm, especially during the harvesting season, because a graded incentive system offers these women a pittance more for every kg that they collect above the minimum of 21 kg a day. It is a tedious affair and they have to climb up and down the steep slopes with baskets that weigh them down, braving the cold and heat, wild insects and animals.

Most of them have health issues as a result. They leave behind their children and worry constantly about their safety, education and well-being.

In the past few decades, with the plantation industry facing one crisis after another, a large number of men have sought more paying jobs outside the estates, as taxi drivers or sundry workers in the tourism sector. Resorts and hotels have been sprouting at every corner in Munnar. But the women are forced to stay in their estate jobs so as to retain the right for the family to live in the old, two-room shacks that the company had set apart for those on its rolls. The decrepit residential quarters are often too crowded with many micro families sharing them. Most of them have no land or home of their own, or any other avenue to make an extra income.

Munnar’s estate workers maintain close ties with their ancestral villages in Tamil Nadu through marriages and participation in festivals and so on, but those links too are nowadays becoming tenuous. While a few decades earlier a job in the tea gardens in Kerala was a sign of prestige, today it is a sign of hardship. From the perspective of many of these workers, while life in the estates and the residential lines has remained more or less the same, the rest of the world has moved forward. Physical, cultural and social landscapes all around them are changing fast, even in their own villages, offering opportunities for the rich and the educated.

Evidently, no agency, be it the male-dominated unions, the government or the company management, had thus far bothered to look closely at the precarious daily universe of these women workers as they struggle to keep pace. That is why, before it could blink, Kerala witnessed the birth of a new women’s movement and the emergence of a group of unsophisticated but extremely focussed leaders from among them—women from the margins who stand boldly before television cameras and say: “Enough is enough. We will speak for ourselves. We have lost faith in the trade unions. We will form our own union. We want to represent ourselves in the Plantation Labour Committee meetings. We would rather die than go back on our demands.”

At least initially, their common grievances have kept them together and their fledgling movement holds great promise as a gender-sensitive catalytic agent in the plantation sector. Respect for them has grown as they mark their friends and foes from among the State’s politicians, keep the trade unions at a safe distance, interact directly with the Ministers, and openly rebuke mischievous elements from across the State’s borders who try to portray them as a movement of a disgruntled linguistic minority.

On October 7, at yet another meeting of the PLC in Thiruvananthapuram, as the managements once again rejected their demands and the conciliatory suggestions of the government, the women workers and the trade unions announced their resolve to intensify their struggle. But a long-pending government “package” offering medical insurance premiums, better facilities at the residential lines, including extension of buildings, and upgradation of schools, health and transport facilities has reportedly been approved by the Cabinet to be implemented after the local body elections.

What does the future hold for “Pengal Otrumai”? Will they be able to go the whole hog now that they have stirred well-entrenched interests that were pulling their lot down? Will their historic women-only struggle have a lasting impact on the trade union movement in Kerala? Many questions remain unanswered as they resolve yet again to stay together and seek a better life.

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