The Unique Revolt Create Ripples in Kerala

The Unique Revolt Create Ripples in Kerala

We have already witnessed the massive demonstration of strength and independence by the women militant workers at Munnar tea plantations, and their success and impact they have made.  Swarms spilled over the Munnar streets, with their family members, literally made the town to a halt. Initially the strike was compartmentalized as an epitome of Maoist or other such influence behind the militants, but later the agitation got a new realm and the wonder fact was that the entire main stream Media supported the protest in right spirit, and the media looked like less sycophantic than usual. Over 6000 women workers from the Kannan Devan estate at Munnar took part in the strike in defiance of their trade union leaders, seeking high and equal wages with men and alleging that trade union top heads are robbing the benefits due to them.

The workers are getting very low wages and their living conditions are really pathetic despite the fact that the 60 percent of the companies share is owned by the workers. The ramblings about the losses in tea industry conceal the enormous control of land in Munnar by Tata over a trivial amount paid to the government. The Munnar struggle has been regarded as a thunderous slap to the patriarchal trade unionism in Kerala. For nine fine days the women workers of the Kannan Devan plantation kept the trade union leaders and politicians on the bay, for that very reason the credit of their victory solely goes to them. Neither labour unions’ appeals nor politicians’ interventions to mediate could placate the plantation workers. There was a fear that the agitation, if it gets drawn out, could mar the tourist season in the hill station. After a marathon meeting chaired by Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, the management accepted the agitators’ major demand of 20% bonus. While 11.67% of this will be given ex gratia, the remaining, the statutory minimum of 8.33% will be paid as bonus. The government, and the stakeholders, are relieved that the impasse has ended. But there are indications that tensions still remain.

Kanan Devan Hills Plantations “succeeded Tata Tea Limited” in April 2005 when Tata Tea “exited most of its plantations in Munnar to focus on the growth of its branded tea business”. The previous financial year, Tata Tea, in a restructuring, handed the control of its 17 tea estates in Munnar to the nearly 13,000 employees by allocating them 300 shares each.

While the Company still takes pride in making the workers the co-owners, the labourers say that the move made little change to their life standards. They say the company got additional profit after the restructuring, but the workers got only an exiguous dividend which was Rs 300 last year, their daily wages and living conditions, they say, remain unchanged.

The incendiary that put a match to the tinder of their discontent was the company’s decision to cut down the bonus from 19% to 10% this year. K Abraham Mathew, the Company’s Managing Director said that it was an impending crisis which he was anticipating because the Company’s profit was dwindled by 68% last year.

We had no other options than the bonus cut; otherwise the company would have steeped in to losses. There is a negative trend in the tea business. The entire tea plantation sector in south India, which contributes 42% of the country’s exports, he said, was facing a serious crisis because of a 23% fall in tea auction prices. Unless changes were made, it’ll be difficult to run the company, Mathew added.

Warning for the trade unions, companies and politicians

The Munnar strike has left Kerala’s trade unions, which exercise a strong sway over the working class in Kerala, flustered by the way they were made irrelevant by the female workers. Indeed, the female workers say the leaders have been conniving with the management to deny them their entitlements.

On the first day of the strike, the workers sent a strong message to trade union leaders by laying siege to their offices in Munnar.The workers alleged that they discerned the reality that the union leaders were betraying the workers by accepting money and other lucrative benefits from the management. “While the trade union leaders lead a luxurious life, we struggle hard to make ends meet,” said an angry worker. “What we get for our toil is Rs 230 per day. This is less than half of what a daily wage labourer gets in Kerala today. This is not sufficient to meet even our food requirements. The trade union leaders live in bungalows allotted by the company, while we live in huts without toilets and other basic amenities,” said the workers.

The striking workers also didn’t have faith in polititians, except  leader of opposition VS Achuthanandan, all others fielded by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) \" including Member of Legislative Assembly S Rajendran and Member of Parliament PK Sreemathy \" were chased away. The ruling Congress leaders also tasted the wrath of the workers.

The lone woman minister PK Jayalakshmi, Mahila Congress president Bindhu Krishna and another senior women leader Latika Subhash were allowed to join the strike only after the minister agreed to stay in Munnar until a solution was found.

The major reason for the women tea leaf workers been disdained is because of the patriarchal nature of the trade unions, their Tamil origin, low cast label and the spatial confinement induced to the women.

Sooner or later, the kind of desperation and determination that we saw in the struggle at Munnar will surface elsewhere for sure, and the trade unions better prepare for the inevitable, impending doom, what so ever. The women workers said that they aim at forming an all-women trade union. And in their struggle they were supported by all kinds of people, including policemen.

The strike is a warning to politicians and trade union leaders. None of them has been able to address the genuine concerns of the workers, who have finally proved their strength in fighting for their cause. The political parties and the trade unions launched by them are perusing the new Jasmine Revolt precipitated by the women workers. They are astonished the by the way it started and how the agitators gained the support of Kerala public, and also the way they negotiated with the government and management which ended up in a success. The agitation’s success has been looked upon as the beginning of a workers-led trade union movement in Kerala. The strike has already created ripples around the state.







Add Your Comments