Women Workers of Munnar: Starting Up, Standing Up, Shaking Up The Status Quo

It looks the tea women workers of Munnar in Idukki district of Kerala, have taken a perfect cue from Modi’s latest rhetoric, Start Up and Stand Up. They started up and there are their followers now ‘standing up’. If it is FF15 (Fight For $15) for workers in USA it is FF500 for tea workers of Kerala. Inspired by the Munnar women workers’ protest strike held for 9 days from September 5 to 13 , women workers of Harrison Malayalam staged a ‘stand up’ protest in front of their offices on September 15 raising the same demands raised by the Munnar workers. Their strike continued on the next day too as the talks with the management failed. Women workers of Tata Tea in Idukki also went on a strike demanding wage rise. There are similar protests in the tea estates in Wayanad and Kollam as well. The spirit is spreading beyond tea industry. More than 6,000 women workers employed in MRF Shrimp Peeling shed are demanding a wage rise and are getting ready for a protest.

By calling the protest of women workers ‘spontaneous,’ the corporate world rushes in vain to convince itself and others including workers of various sections who are inspired by the protest that this is a one-off affair.

But women workers of Kannan Devan Hills Plantation (KDHP) of Munnar have not retreated with the partial success of their protest. Around 350 of them met on September 20 and discussed the further course of action. They have now sent a representation to the Kerala Government demanding that their representatives should be a part of the meeting of Plantation Labour Committee, a tripartite body for taking decisions on wages and other working conditions of tea workers, which is to be held on September 26. They have also stated in their letter, no decision on wages and related issues taken without the participation of their representatives would be accepted.

The meeting they held on September 20 suggests that the show is not over. In that meeting they have formed 6-member division committees in 82 divisions. These committees will meet after the Plantation Labour Committee meeting. This meeting and the decisions taken suggest that their 9-days protest for 20% bonus and Rs.500 wages per day is not ‘spontaneous’ as reported by many in the media. Sustaining a strike of over 7,000 women continuously for 9 days, coming to the streets, closing down the tea outlets of the company, bringing economic life of the area to a halt by blocking the roads and keeping the tourists away, simultaneously garnering support of the general public, keeping out Trade Union and political leaders for a time and then getting a former Chief Minister to participate in the negotiations, and bringing the Chief Minister to the negotiating table – in all this the Munnar women workers displayed a mature conscious element with a strategic and tactical vision.

The three leaders of the protest are still activists of left-led TUs. They played the central role in organizing the protest with the help of next level of vanguards who are also members and office bearers of TUs. Contrary to some attempts by sections of the media to portray the Munnar struggle as ‘anti-trade-union’, the struggling women workers displayed the long-term experience of organizing under the same TUs which they kept away in the September protest. They used the same network used by the TU structure to secretly spread word about the strike action without the knowledge of men. And now they are demanding that their leaders be included in Tripartite negotiations. Far from being a rejection of Trade Unions, it is a case of women workers and rank-and-file workers embracing Unions as their own, and asserting their right to lead struggles and take decisions. It is an assertion of Trade Union democracy that should inspire workers and Unions everywhere in India.

The corporate world which received a united blow of the workers of the country on September 2 under the united leadership of various central trade unions, cannot take comfort from the Munnar struggle by harbouring the illusion that the struggle represents a rejection of Trade Unions. This is an ongoing class struggle and Munnar women workers have brought workers’ issues into the political agenda of the day. The corporate world is scared of this political message from the workers. The corporate world need not worry whether the workers are with the TUs or not. The workers will decide the mode and the leadership from their own perspective. While the struggle poses questions and challenges for TUs, the fact is that the protest is against Tata and Goenka and that Munnar women workers have taken away more than what these corporates were prepared to part with. In the coming days too these corporate firms may be compelled to dish out more to the workers.

This is not to say that there is nothing on the part of TUs for introspection. Instead of hailing the protest, a CPI leader has said that this kind of protest will result in anarchy. He was forced to retract later. A CITU leader said that the protest had some backing of Tamil extremist groups. Statements of both these left leaders sound only rightist and justify the decision of the workers to keep the TUs away. TUs in Idukki and elsewhere in the country have to subject themselves to honest review to find out in what way they have contributed and continue to contribute for their alienation from their workers base. This alienation has come to the fore in Idukki and it is not an isolated instance. The regimented functioning of TUs in public sector may not work for the unorganized sector and there need not be harder ways to learn the reality.

The protest was waiting to happen as the working conditions of tea women workers are abysmal and the TUs did not address their issues adequately. Tata empire has its own range of goodwill tales toward development and prosperity of the country and of its contribution to bring a better tomorrow for the people. Calling their bluff, the millions of direct and indirect workforce of Tata empire has its own stories of loss, despair and betrayal.

Anant Dalvi and Aktar Khan of Tata Power demanded regularization but ended fatally immolating themselves. The Guardian reported that Tetley tea workers of Assam are paid a pittance and hence their girl children are sold as slaves. KDHP is yet another chapter of such exploitation. Though KDHP is claimed to be a model management by the workers and Tata Tea, for a 12-hours day they are paid Rs.231 for plucking 21 kg of tea leaves. They live in one-room houses that are in poor condition. KDHP has an arrangement where the workers hold 68% of shares and Tata holds 18%. But workers holding 300 shares each with a face value of Rs.10 means peanuts. The co-ownership exists just in name and the toil rests on the workers. By paying more for men for lighter jobs the management was successful in erecting a wall between the men and women workers. When it is not an issue for men workers it is THE issue for women workers.

Harrison Malayalam belongs to R.P.Goenka group. RPG Enterprises has recently made a change in its work culture with the tune of changing times that people in the company right from the Chairperson Harsh Goenka will be addressed by the first name. But the Harrison management is citing loss to pay even the meager sum the workers are demanding. RPG group should also think beyond cosmetic measures and pay its workers decent wages in tune with the times.

Both Tata and RPG groups are involved in a range of economic activities in the country and it should not be a big problem for them to settle a hiked wage bill of the workers who are adding to their fortune. We can see their names very often in the lists of billionaires of India. We can see Tata announcing some billion dollar investment in this or that business very often. They cannot cite loss in one particular business to deny a hike in the wages. Their wealth is right there before the eyes of the workers to see and they cannot be fooled by some vague explanation of market. And they cannot expect the workers, men or women, to worry about their accounts ledgers bound in arithmetic lies.

The minimum wages fixed by the Kerala government for tea workers ranges from Rs.124 to Rs.145 with variable dearness allowance. Kerala labour minister has started saying that it is difficult to raise the wages as demanded by the workers. He is also drawing parallels from Assam and West Bengal and saying those workers are paid Rs.100 per day. On the other hand Munnar women are in no mood to give up. They have started up and are standing up in their own way. They have started writing a fresh chapter in the history of workers’ struggle in the country.

What they have already achieved is hugely significant. In one fell swoop they have exposed and challenged the appalling conditions of India's tea industry, the brutal exploitation that for so long remained unnoticed within the tourist appeal of Munnar and shaken up the male-dominated trade union bureaucracy that has been treating the cruelly overworked and underpaid women workers as only a captive base. And their revolt against the exploitatiive working conditions and apathy of the male-dominated union leadership is no outburst of blind rage, but the beginning of a new level of mobilisation and assertion, a bold announcement of the arrival of one of India's most oppressed section of women workers as an inspired and inspiring vanguard contingent of the Indian working class. Let the corporate world tremble, the revolutionary trade union movement must celebrate and imbibe the great liberating and fighting spirit of the women workers of Munnar.

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