Protests, Trade Union

Lessons of Munnar Women Workers Struggle – D.V.Krishna

The seven thousand strong Munnar women workers’ 9 day struggle has attracted the attention of the country and the national and international media. For the one and half months during which Munnar women workers’ struggle lasted, the press and electronic media in Kerala covered this struggle every day. The women Tea Plantation workers, who happened to be the members of the traditional trade union organizations till the other day, leaving those trade unions, formed their own ‘women’s only’, trade union, called ‘Pengal Otrumai’ and led this struggle. This is one unique feature of this struggle. The women workers, struggling against the gender bias and discrimination in TUs, formed this trade union. The Plantation Industry, the tea and coffee plantations in particular, is facing severe adverse conditions due to increasing global competition and declining prices. In order to retain their profit rates, the corporate managements of plantations are transferring the resulting burden on to the shoulders of workers, by way of reducing the real wages and increasing the work load. The Munnar struggle is also unique in the sense that it is conducted under these unfavourable conditions. The third unique feature is that this struggle could achieve the immense sympathy of the people of the state and could force the Government to speedily intervene and act. The overwhelming number of these women workers are Dalits. They came out to lead their own struggle, breaking their caste barriers. In a nut-shell, this is a heroic and historical struggle of women workers against Globalisation and Liberalisation policies, against gender discrimination and against caste prejudices.

There are Tea, Coffee, Cardimum and Rubber plantations in Kerala. More than three lakh, 25 thousand workers are employed in these plantations. Out of these workers, more than 70% are women workers. The predecessors of most of these workers were brought by the British companies from Tamilnadu as indentured workers in 19th century. The Native workers engaged in plantations are a minority.

The Munnar region of Idukki District of Kerala is one of the centres for plantations. The Kannan Devan Hills Plantations (K.D. H.P.) company is the largest amongst tea plantations. Seven thousand workers are employed in the 92 divisions of this company. This company, originally belonged to Finlay, a British company. Later, Tata became a partner and still later, purchased it completely. In 2005, Tata Tea Company owner of K.D. H.P, sold its majority shares to its employees. It still holds 28.52% shares. Although, for names sake it is an association, Tata still rules the company. Workers’ role is a big zero.

The working and living conditions of workers, just like in other plantations, are most exploitative, bad and unbearable. Managements grumble day in and day out that there is heavy competition in world market and the prices of tea & coffee are low. They used to frighten the workers that if they demand wage hikes, the plantations will be closed and the workers lose the livelihood. Thus, the wages of workers were kept low. As per the wage agreement arrived at in May, 2011, the daily wage of Tea Plantation Workers was fixed as Rs. 250/- per day (the workers have to pluck 21 kgs of tea leaf per day). This agreement had expired in December, 2014. The management had paid 19% Bonus for the year 2013-2014. But the management is not willing to pay more than 8.33% Bonus this year (2014-15). Further, they were not willing to increase the wages to any extent, with the pretext of increased competition in international market. The price hike of all daily necessities and increased cost of education and health care, forced the workers to take the course of struggle.

Although there have been drastic changes in the living conditions in the society around, during the last 20-30 years, the living conditions of plantation workers remained stagnant and backward. They live still in the worn-out, single bed room houses (which are called lines, constructed by the companies for workers). Several plantations are also closed. Men workers, seeing all these conditions, are leaving the plantation jobs and taking up the jobs of taxi drivers, hotel waiters or tourist guides. The women workers, finding no alternative employment, are forced to stay back as plantation workers. They are also forced to do so for fear of losing the shelter of the company houses.

The job of women workers is back breaking. They have to get up early in the morning, do the household chores and climb the hills and come down with the heavy weight of bags of tea leaves. They often become victims of poisonous insect bites. The offer of the managements to pay extra amounts for each kg of extra tea leaves plucked lures the workers to do extra hours of labour. As a result their health is damaged. They are susceptible to various ailments.

As in all plantations, there are traditional TUs in Tea and Coffee plantations also. The main T.Us functioning in Kerala Tea Plantations, are A.I.T.U.C, I.N.T.U.C. and CITU. These TUs have conducted several struggles and achieved several victories also in the past. But, of late, these unions have become compromisers and collaborators. The individual leaders have become corrupt and selfish. With the conditions in the industry becoming more and more adverse, these unions have become more and more compromising or collusive.

As a consequence, workers, in particular women workers, began losing faith in the TUs. The women workers of K.D.H.P. have formed their own union, ‘Pengal Ortumai (women’s unity)’ leaving the traditional TUs, in which they have been members for a long time. They have placed their demands (1) Enhancement of Daily wage to Rs. 500/- and 2) Payment of 20% Bonus, before the management. They went on strike on these demands for 9 days, from September 5th to September 13th (there is another report that the workers went only on go slow, i.e. to pluck only 21 kgs of Tea leaf per day). During the period of strike, the women workers held a big demonstration before the K.D.H.P. office at Munnar. They took out several processions also. They demanded their union’s inclusion in the plantation labour committee. The women workers kept T.U. leaders, local political leaders, and M.L.As at a distance. They led a delegation of women workers to the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram and themselves held talks with the ministers. They themselves spoke in the public meetings. They themselves explained their struggle to media people and T.V. channels. The women leaders such as Lissy Sunny, Gomathi, Rajeshwari, Jayalakshmi and many others have sprung up from this struggle.

 The traditional Trade Unions, in the beginning, took the stand of opposing this struggle. They exhibited an attitude of disrespect and ignorance in this struggle. The leaders of A.I.T.U.C, and C.I.T.U. issued statements opposing this struggle. They have described this struggle as anarchism and accused that Tamil extremist groups and Maoists are behind it. A.I.T.U.C, I.N.T.U.C. and CITU leaders have given show cause notices (because these happen to be their members) to these women workers for resorting to ‘go slow’ at the peak of the season. This turned out to be the last straw on the camel’s back and the women leaders decided to have ‘no truck with these T.Us. Belated wisdom struck these unions and they ultimately expressed their regret at their mistake. They have issued statements supporting the Munnar women’s struggle.

Ours is the patriarchal society. The ideas of men’s superiority are dominant in Trade unions also. Male leaders are skeptical about the capabilities, capacities, initiative and consciousness of women workers. It is common on the part of male leadership to discriminate against women while allotting responsibilities. That is why women cadre and leaders are not developing even in the TUs, where women members are predominant. The same thing happened in Munnar T.U. movement.

The Munnar women workers’ struggle was not defeated as expected by T.U. leaders. This struggle has achieved 8.33% Bonus and 11.67% ex-gratia against their demand of 20% Bonus. It was agreed to consider wage increase after some time. This struggle had achieved political and moral victory more than an economic victory. Women workers have gained the sympathy and support of the people all over the state. The State Government, in view of the forth coming local body elections, (due on November 2nd & 5th) had become defensive.

With the outburst of Munnar women workers’ struggle and its victory, the workers in other tea and coffee estates, and other plantations brought pressure on the traditional TUs to give a call for strike struggle on the demand of wage hike. The TUs, which were insensitive and unmoved by the urges and aspirations of workers for long, suddenly sprang into action and gave a call for state-wide indefinite strike from 20.9.2015 on the demand of Rs. 500/- daily wage for all plantation workers. They were forced to give this call to restore their damaged prestige and to safeguard their workers’ base. The strike continued from 28th September to 14th October, i.e. for 17 days. All trade unions jointly conducted Relay Hunger strike at Munnar continuously during the strike. The ‘Women’s unity’ held their relay fast camp separately at a distance from the site of TUs’ camp. Women workers assembled there in large number. Although the T.U. leadership urged the ‘women’s unity’ to join them, it rejected the offer because of its bitter experience. When a women T.U. leader of the traditional T.Us went to the dias of women workers, they have respected her and allowed her to address. While the leadership of ‘women’s unity’ was insistent on keeping the traditional TU leaders and politicians at bay, it was flexible enough on occasions like in the example given above.

The leadership of “Women’s unity” was right in asserting its independence and initiative and in demarcating itself from the defamed TUs. It is to be hoped “women’s unity” will keep the broadest unity of the working class against the native and foreign exploitative classes in perspective.

The plantation Labour Committee, a tripartite committee formed by the state Govt. consisting of the representatives of the TUs, managements and the Government, met six times to achieve a solution. The Government was under severe pressure from both workers and managements. The backward socio-economic conditions of workers and their united struggle pressed the Government to act. While it is true that there are certain adverse market conditions internationally, the managements, using this plea, pressurized the Government not to yield to the demands of the workers. On the other hand, the ruling party and the Government has to face the local body elections soon (November 2nd & 5th) in the state. Under these conditions, the Government has brought together the representatives of the workers and the management to sign an agreement on 14th October 2015. According to this agreement, the daily wages of Tea & Coffee plantation workers are increased from Rs. 250/- to Rs. 301/- per day, the daily wage of cardimum workers is increased to Rs. 330/-, the daily wage of Rubber Plantation workers is increased to Rs. 381/-. The total wage of a Tea or Coffee Plantation worker including all allowances, after the hike, amounts to Rs. 436/- per day, the total wage of a Cardimum worker amounts to Rs. 478/- and that of a Rubber Plantation worker amounts to Rs. 552/-.

The 24 English and Tamil Medium Schools that are presently being run for the children of plantation workers, will be upgraded. In plantations without schools, new schools will be set up through the Bhavanam Foundation, a Govt. institution. The Government assured that Rs. 10,000/- per student per year, will be provided for wages of teachers. The Rs. 20 Crores allotted to this Foundation will also be utilized to build two room houses for plantation workers in place of existing one room houses.

These assurances can only be realized through the workers’ vigilance and consistent struggle.

While the Government had agreed to only 30% of demanded wage increase, it had to announce several measures to satisfy the managements. It has assured that the plantation tax per hectare per year will be reduced from Rs. 700/- to Rs. 500/-, the electricity rates for plantations will be reduced and the agricultural income tax will be reduced on par with central income tax. The seniarage on Rubber plants will be reduced in the next state Budget.

As the Munnar women workers’ struggle led to the state-wide plantation workers’ strike struggle, the whole Government was forced to pay its attention to this struggle. The Government had formed a committee with state’s Finance, Revenue and Labour Secretaries. This committee met several times. The state cabinet also held special meetings for discussing this issue. The State Chief Minister had to pay special attention to this. The MLAs representing the constituencies in which plantations are concentrated, were also forced to pay attention. The Plantation Labour Committee met six times during the period of strike. The Government has assured that the plantation labour committee will continuously hold meetings soon after the local body elections and sort out the issues still unsettled. It is clear that the Government is afraid that this issue may impact the results of the elections.

This struggle had proved the significance of a conscious and organized struggle of the workers. The plantation workers face blood sucking exploitation of the plantation managements. Yet the Governments did not bother. These central TUs have acted as if they are absent there. This struggle has awoken the Government and the TUs from their deep slumber by piercing them with sharp needles. Although the workers have achieved only one-third of their demand, it could achieve the unity and spirit of struggle amongst the workers, which is so important for the future of the workers’ struggle. It is doubtless that this struggle will enthuse the plantation workers all over the country for struggle.

Munnar women workers’ struggle has enthused and will further inspire the women workers in other sectors in Kerala into struggles. The Munnar women workers will surely keep up their spirit of struggle and raise their political consciousness, leadership qualities and play a role in future.

BOX

There have been a series of strikes in the state in recent times for women and led by women. Mainstream trade unions were not involved in these, or only had a supporting role to offer. For instance, textile shop floor workers demanding better working hours, nurses’ strike in private hospitals for decent wages, unorganized sector workers in Kozikode demanding the right to sit during work hours, etc., were successful struggles that followed innovative mobilizational strategies and were led by women from the work force and from outside the traditional unions.

The emrgence of woman worker conscious of her agency is also the outcome of changes in Kerala’s economy. The sectors that saw the large scale unionization in the past- agriculture, cashew processing, the choir industry, handloom, etc.- have shrunk. These sectors employed women in large numbers and their fate is reflected in the decline of women in work participation in Kerala- 15.4%, which is less than the national average of 22%.

Indian Express, September 18, 2015

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