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Kerala: 4,000 tea workers protest bonus cut, keep unions out in Munnar

Tea estate
workers of Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Limited in Munnar protest against a cut in
bonus rates. (Source: Indian Express)
Without the support of trade unions or their leaders, 4,000-odd tea estate workers of
Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Limited (formerly Tata Tea) filled the streets of Munnar hill
station in Kerala for the third day on Tuesday, demanding an increase in bonus and daily
wages. A major chunk of the agitators were women deployed for plucking tea leaves in the
In a state known for influential trade union leaders, no politicians are leading the agitation
from the front. The protesters have not allowed their union leaders of AITUC, CITU and
INTUC (of CPI, CPM and Congress, respectively) to join the stir against reducing the
bonus to 10 per cent. On Sunday, the workers had attacked the offices of the trade unions.
Subsequently, union leaders have gone into hiding. Normal life in Munnar, a major tourist
destination in Kerala, was also hit due to the stir. On Tuesday, women workers have
started pouring onto the streets of Munnar.
The women alleged that the trade union leaders had colluded with the management of the
Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Limited (KDHP) to deny them 20 per cent bonus. The
women workers did not allow the BJP to intervene in the issue, although the party has
called for a dawn-to-dusk bandh in Idukki district on Tuesday.
Devikulam sub-collector P Rajeev, who lead the conciliatory talks, said the agitation has
no leaders. Workers, mostly women, have spontaneously hit the streets. They have
brought Munnar to standstill, apart from holding the senior officials of the KDHP as
hostages on Monday. The agitators want 20 per cent bonus, but the company is willing to
pay only 10 per cent. The labour commissioner has convened a meeting on Tuesday to
find a solution, said the sub-collector.
The estate management said the tea industry has been going through a severe crisis. The
company was forced to reduce the bonus from 20 per cent to 10 per cent this year due to
the fall in the profit.

The company said the decision to reduce the bonus was taken after consulting the trade
union leaders. The company incurred a fall in its income by 68 percent in 2014-15
compared to the previous year. In the past year, the companys profit plunged to Rs 4.2
crore owing to the international fall in the prices of tea. The decision to provide 10 percent
of bonus was taken in the annual meeting of the company, it said.
The KDHP has 13,000 workers in its rolls, most of them women engaged in plucking tea
leaves. The workers have 68 per cent of the share of the KDHP, while 18 per cent is held
by Tata Tea. The remaining 14 per cent is held by a trust and others.
Sources said the ordinary workers have only 300 shares each with a face value of Rs 10.
At the same time, the officers in the company own a major part of the shares given to the
workers. Hence, workers were missing the sentiments that they were co-owners of the
When Tata Tea divested its stake, the estate was running at an annual loss of Rs 8 crore.
However, changing fortunes in the tea sector in the second half of the last decade
improved the situation. In 2009, the KDHP had made a profit of Rs 41 crore.
In the earlier years after the formation of the KDHP, the company had claimed that making
the workers part of the firm has given them a greater sense of responsibility. However, the
revisit of crisis in the tea sector changed the situation and turned the ordinary workers
hostile against the management.

Keralas tea planters say hit by worst crisis in 100 years

By ET Bureau | 29 May, 2015, 02.22AM IST
KOCHI: Hit by a slump in prices of tea and rubber, the plantation industry in Kerala has suggested a series of measures including a three year
moratorium on taxes, a single window clearance system for diversification projects under the permission to use 5% land for activities other than
plantations and purchase of one lakh kg of tea a week from Kochi auctions by the Kerala State Civil Supplies Corporation (KSCSC).
The Association of Planters of Kerala (APK) said the tea industry in the state is going through one of the worst crisis faced in the past 100 years
of its existence. The average auction price realised by tea produced from Kerala in the current financial year is Rs 95.59 per kg when the cost
of production is hovering above Rs 120 per kg.
For every kg of Kerala tea sold in the auction market, the producer is suffering a loss of Rs 25 per kg. Even though the average price of Kerala
tea for the year 2015 is Rs 95.59 per kg, the actual price realised by the grower is less as nearly 90% of tea produced in Kerala is CTC grade
whose average price is only Rs 93.75 per kg.
The large tea producers like Kanan Devan Hill Plantations, Harrisons Malayalam etc., who are known to carry out cultural operations
meticulously, are forced to curtail cultural operations to a large extent due to the severe cash flow crunch.
Some of the estates have decided to extend the plucking rounds in order to reduce the cost and also the quantity of production, APK chairman
C Vinayaraghavan said. The small and medium tea growers, who sell the green leaf directly to tea factories, started abandoning the operations

Trouble brewing for southern India's tea industry

Rebecca Bundhun
February 25, 2013

MUNNAR // In Kerala's tea country, meandering mountain roads pass through rolling green valleys lined with thousands of
neatly manicured tea bushes.
Distant groups of brightly dressed tea pickers look like mere specks bobbing in the sea of lush greenery, while tourists snap
pictures or simply gaze in awe at the countryside around the hill station of Munnar.
But beyond the seemingly perfect, picturesque landscape of this southern Indian state's tea industry, troubles are brewing.
Tea estate managers and other industry sources in Kerala describe a sector struggling amid soaring labour costs and
unfavourable weather patterns, while the rivalry from China and other tea growing nations looms large.
"Costs are spiralling," says JDurairaj, the assistant director of advisory services at the Upasi Tea Research Foundation's regional
centre in Munnar.
"China, the way in which they are growing, is really threatening. Particularly in Kerala, the wages are very high compared to
other planting districts across India. The tea price in the auction is not going up at the same level of the input cost or the labour
Last month, six of the major tea producing countries - India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Rwanda, Malawi and Kenya- agreed to set up
the International Tea Producers Forum, essentially a tea cartel, to try to control prices to some extent and promote the industry.
But with tea being perishable and varieties of tea varying dramatically, experts say that such a cartel has little chance of
operating in a similar way to how the major oil-producing countries run Opec, despite widespread fears that the cost of a cup of
tea will escalate.
"I'm not sure how far it's going to be successful," says Mr Durairaj, explaining that countries such as Indonesia produce cheaper
teas than the subcontinent.
In the south of India, including Kerala, there are other forces at work that would be beyond the control of the tea cartel.
Adverse weather conditions, including frost and poor rainfall, last year contributed to a 17.3 per cent decline in exports from
south India over the January to March period to 14.4 million kilogrammes and a 21.8 per cent drop in the value to 1.34 billion
rupees (Dh90.6 million), according to official figures.
This prompted a 4.2 per cent decline in India's overall tea production in the first seven months of last year to 470.8 million kg
compared with the same period a year earlier.
"The industry is in a pretty bad position," says Appu Abraham, the assistant manager of Harrisons Malayalam's 373-hectare
Lockhart tea estate in Munnar, which is expected to produce 3,670 tonnes of raw green leaf tea in the current financial year. The
estate produces its tea for export, with the Middle East, particularly the UAE, being its main market.
Wages of plantation workers have rocketed to about 310 rupees a day, including a minimum wage and all the benefits that the
state government demands that employees are paid. The basic wage in south India's tea estates rose to 183.45 rupees last year
compared with 77.84 rupees in 2002, according to figures from Upasi.
The Lockhart estate has managed its rising costs by cutting down on labour. Over the past decade it has almost halved its
number of workers from about 840 in 2002 to 456 last year.

"Every year we'll reduce the workforce by about 5 to 6 per cent," Mr Abraham says. In regions in the north-east such as Assam,
plantations could often command more than double the price for their tea and could pay their workers less than half the wages
that would be paid in Kerala, he says.
The tea industry in Kerala is trying hard to modernise its operations by adding tea picking machines that would allow it to reduce
its labour force and increase production.
In the past six months, the Lockhart estate has been trialling five harvesting machines, which are operated by two workers and
cost 5,000 rupees. Using such machines, each worker can produce 400kg of tea a day compared with a maximum of 150kg a
day by using manual shears.
The estate stopped using the traditional hand plucking method in 2000, with that only yielding about 40kg a day, although handpicked tea is widely considered to be of a higher quality. The estate plans to add a further five to 10 machines in May.
"Day to day, we have a problem with the labour cost," says Mr Abraham. "Labour availability is also a major problem because in
Kerala the children are getting educated and they don't want to work here - they get settled in the big cities. Half the people have
migrated to other places."
Prices of pesticides and fertilisers have also increased dramatically, as the government has reduced subsidies, he adds.
Bob Devaiah, the group manager of Talayar Tea Company in Munnar, says the prices the company was getting in tea auctions
were "not good", averaging at 102 rupees per kg over the last year.
"All over south India, it will be in trouble," he says. "The north will be able to survive because of lower wages."
Mr Devaiah says the estate has not turned a profit for four to five years and expects to lose between 2 million and 2.5 million
rupees in this financial year, which ends on March 31.
The estate is using enforced leave for its employees to try to reduce costs. It is also hoping to diversify the use of the estate, for
tourism, for example, to try to generate additional revenues, Mr Devaiah says.
Talayar has not started using machines yet, but intends to do so to increase productivity.
"It's a challenging time because of the climate changes particularly," says R Ambalavanan, the executive director in south India
for the Tea Board of India. "Labour cost is very high. We are trying to mechanise our fields as much as possible, but even for
that you need the skills to operate the machines.
The rising cost of living and better salaries in industries such as construction and retail meant that many Indians do not want to
work in the tea industry, he says.
"The Tea Board is trying to address all these issues," says Mr Ambalavanan, explaining that it was trying to step up promotion,
increase the quality and boost export capacity. "We are trying to have a better price realisation, but unfortunately the supply
chain is very long in India, so the profits are not really going to the producers and the tea growers actually."

Kerala tea plantation stir ends

Management and workers finally agree on wage rise; govt panel to look into other issues raised after next month's local body
George Joseph October 15, 2015 Last Updated at 22:30 IST

The stalemate over the wage dispute in Kerala's tea plantations ended on Wednesday, at a meeting of the
Plantation Labour Committee (PLC), on which both sides were represented, with the government keeping a watch.
The meet decided to raise the daily minimum wage to Rs 301 and the joint committee of various trade unions called
off their 17-day strike. Pembilai Orumai (Women's Movement), an unofficial movement of female workers in the tea
plantations of Munnar, also withdrew its strike, although saying it was not satisfied; they'd wanted a minimum daily
wage of Rs 500.
For tea plantation workers, the daily wage rises by Rs 69. For cardamom workers, by Rs 63. And, for rubber workers
by Rs 64. Tea and coffee workers will get Rs 436 daily (other benefits included). Cardamom workers will get Rs 478
and those on rubber plantations will get Rs 552.
Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said a commission would be appointed to study the various issues raised, such as
the condition of workers' living quarters in the plantations. The government will call a meeting to discuss the other
demands of the workers once state local body elections, scheduled in the first week of November, are over.
As for the Pembilai Orumai, their leader, Lissy Sunny, said their strike had been withdrawn due to members' bad
financial position. They'd restart the agitation, she said, after the local body elections.

The past five PLC meetings were inconclusive, with both the management and workers adamant. The companies
offered a maximum increase of Rs 23 a day, arguing tea plantations were in crisis due to low prices for their
produce. However, the CM insisted the daily wage be raised to at least Rs 300; the government had planned to
issue a notification to so raise wages if Wednesdays meeting had failed on a consensus.
Thousands of workers of Kanan Devan Tea, under the Tata Group, had blocked Munnar town for nine days,
demanding a minimum wage of Rs 500 a day and 20 per cent bonus.
The agreement includes 8.33 per cent bonus and 11.67 per cent ex gratia allowance. The strike had hit tourism, with
many cancellations of hotel bookings in Munnar.
Earlier, the United Planters Association of Southern India (Upasi) had said regional plantations paid one of the
highest basic wages in the country. For tea plantations in the state, it said, the wages and other benefits amounted
to Rs 410.72 a day. Also, that the basic wage of tea plantation workers in Kerala had gone up by 590 per cent since
1995, while the average South India tea price had risen by 195 per cent. The basic wage for a tea plantation worker
in 1995 was Rs 44.71 a day, it said, and the average tea price was Rs 41.25 a kg; now, the wage per day was Rs
232 and the price of tea was Rs 80.42 a kg.
Vijayan Rajes, former president of Upasi, said the plantation sector in the south gave employment to 360,000
workers through the year. One of the main reasons for the sector's financial instability, he said, was the high cost of

production on account of social welfare costs thrust upon it. Plantations are the only sector compelled to provide
housing, medical services, education, sanitation and other welfare amenities, he complained.

Labour unrest spreads in tea

plantations in Kerala
The series of strikes began when thousands of workers, of Kannan Devan Tea, mainly women, had blocked Munnar town for
nine days continuously
George Joseph | Mumbai September 18, 2015 Last Updated at 16:02 IST

Workers of various tea plantations across Kerala are now on an indefinite strike demanding an increase in the
minimum wage to Rs 500 per day. The striking workers are blocking main roads and not allowing top managers to
attend their offices.
Thousands of workers, of Kannan Devan Tea, under the management of Tata, mainly women, had blocked Munnar
town for nine days continuously for want of 20% bonus and a minimum wage of Rs 500. The strike had been
withdrawn on an agreement of 8.33% bonus and 11.67% ex-gratia allowance.
The government will convene a meeting on 22nd of this month to discuss the rest of their demands. Interestingly,
the workers opted violent mode of agitation, blocking all roads to Munnar, discarding all the recognised trade unions
like INTUC and CITU. It was women workers who led the strike, which was a first of its kind in the history of
plantations in the South. Workers did not allow the trade union leaders to even to come to the strike location.
In the light of the 'victory' of Munnar model strike workers of other major plantation companies like Harrison
Malayalam are now on an indefinite strike at various locations. This may aggravate the crisis in the plantation sector
of the South, which is reeling under pressure because of cost escalation and fall in prices.
Vijayan Rajes, President, United Planters Association of Southern India [UPASI] said that South India plantation
industry pays one of the highest basic wages in the country. In a statement issued he said that it is as high as Rs
232, daily for the tea plantation workers in Kerala.
These wages added with statutory and other benefits works out to Rs 410.72 per day. The government also
provides employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the wages
paid to the workers under the scheme is only Rs 229 per day. The wages to plantation workers are not arbitrarily
decided by the management but fixed through negotiations as per the law. It is intriguing to note that the basic
wage of tea plantation workers in Kerala has gone up by 5.19 times or 590% since 1995 while the average South
India tea price has gone up only 1.95 times or 195%. The basic wage for a tea plantation worker in 1995 was Rs
44.71 per day and the average tea price was Rs 41.25 whereas the wage per day now is Rs 232 and the tea price is
Rs 80.42.
The tea plantations are on a serious crisis, especially the small and medium segment in Kerala and Tamilnadu as
there is steep fall in prices since 2014. Average price dropped Rs 15/Kg in 2014 and further dropped Rs 6 in this
year to hover around Rs 80/Kg.

Labour committee meet called to end

plantation workers strike in Kerala
Management says not in a position to hike wages even as one group goes on hunger strike
T E Narasimhan | Kochi October 6, 2015 Last Updated at 00:25 IST

A Plantation Labour Committee (PLC) meeting to resolve an ongoing strike by about 325,000 workers across
plantations in Kerala remained inconclusive. According to a source privy to the talks, another round of discussions is
scheduled for Wednesday.
The protesting workers have demanded their basic wages be increased from Rs 232 a day to Rs 500 a day.
Plantation owners, however, say the workers get more than what they claim and as they are under pressure due to
lower productivity, a fall in prices and competition from other countries, the wages cannot be increased.
Ahead of the labour committee meeting on Monday, a Pembilai Otrumai delegation met Kerala Chief Minister
Oommen Chandy. The delegation, comprising workers from Munnar, said a decision by the chief minister on the
issue would be acceptable.
The all women-Pengal Otrumai from Munnar, a rich plantation belt, was the first to protest, without the support of
trade unions. Subsequently, the protests spread among plantation workers across the state. According to local
media reports, 24 women from the Pengal Otrumai have begun a hunger strike. While the group has refused to join
hands with unions, established unions are also engaged in a hunger strike.
All unions were demanding minimum wages of Rs 15,000 a month, said C A Kurian, a senior member of the All India
Trade Union Congress. He added it was up to the government to come up with a decision on the matter.
After a meeting of the Association of Planters of Kerala (APK) on Sunday, APK Chairman C Vinayaraghavan told the
media, Conceding to demands without any rationale will be a death knell for the industry. He added the actual
wages received by worker was 45 per cent more than what was being projected.
Managements, he said, were willing to consider a reasonable increase in wages, provided there was a
corresponding rise in productivity and a support mechanism from the government.
The plantation owners have demanded the government do away with the agriculture income and plantation tax, cut
land tax to 2010 levels, implementation of the suggestions by as committee set up on plantations and extension of
the rubber price support mechanism.
For the state administration, finding a resolution to the issue is crucial, as elections to local self government bodies
are scheduled for November 2 and 5. The plantation sector is one of the largest employers in the state.

Local media reports have stated trade unions might have to climb down on their demands, adding in the past, with
the PLC deciding wages, the unions could manage a rise of only Rs 82 in basic wages.
If the basic wages were to be raised to Rs 300-350 a day, it would be one of the steepest wage increases for
workers in recent times.
Meanwhile, a six-member delegation of Pengal Otrumai (Women Unity) is to hold discussion with Labour Minister
Shibu Baby John. The group from Munnar, one of the rich plantations belts in the state, was the first one to go on
Local media reported that 24 women belonging to the group have gone on a hunger strike in place of the five who
began the strike on Saturday

Tea: A cupful of woes

The clouds of gloom presently hanging over the Indian tea industry are
several shades darker now after the annual meeting of the United
Planters Association of South India held in Coonoor.
Raj Chengappa
November 4, 2013 | UPDATED 18:27 IST
A +A -

The clouds of gloom presently hanging over the Indian tea industry are several shades darker
now after the annual meeting of the United Planters Association of South India (UPASI) held in
Coonoor last fortnight.
Planters, who have been fighting a back-to-the-wall battle against declining prices and rising
costs of production, had assembled in the cold, rain-soaked Nilgiri hill station hoping to hear
Finance Minister R. Venkataraman spell out-at last-the relief measures which the Government
had promised to provide 'immediately' two months ago when the first national tea meet was held
in New Delhi.
Disappointingly, Venkataraman, who was to preside over the meeting, was caught up in the
Antulay affair and could not attend. Even worse, when his presidential address was read out it
was found to contain no reference to the tax reliefs recommended at the Delhi meeting.
Despite the minister's expressed hope that he had conveyed a "message of cheer", the planters
left in a dejected mood. V.P. Maithel, the pipe-smoking chairman of the Indian Tea Association
(ITA), the apex tea organisation, voiced the planters' desperation: "Time is running out for us and
if the Government does not act soon the industry will be doomed" The Government's apparent
nonchalance about the tea crisis is surprising.

A Kerala tea-picker : High wages pushing up costs

India is the world's largest tea producer, growing 575 million kg

which accounts for 30 per cent of the total global production. The
north Indian states of West Bengal and Assam grow almost 75
percent of India's tea production, averaging 430 million kg while
the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala grow the rest.
But while India exports 39 per cent of her total production,
earning almost Rs 400 crore in foreign exchange last year, the
country's share in the total world export market has been declining rapidly with Kenya and China
muscling in. Following an unprecedented boom in 1976 Indian export earnings leap-frogged from
Rs 273.1 crore to Rs 541.6 crore in 1977.
But the Government levied a killing export duty that brought tea exports crashing and last year

earnings fell to Rs 412 crore. But although exports had touched 225 million kg last year, only-four
million kg short of the 1977 figure, with prices declining steeply, the income fell by more than Rs
120 crore.
Today, as R.N. Deogun, the vice-president of Tata Finlays Ltd, the country's largest tea grower,
puts it: "It is a very dismal picture." Tata Finlays which has estates in all the major tea-growing
states producing tea worth Rs 4.2 crore, is in deep trouble. Only recently it put its tea estates
totalling 2, 000 hectares in West Bengal up for sale.
Apart from that it has cut off 75 per cent of its fertiliser supply to plants as an economy measure
that is sure to have disastrous consequences for its crops next year. Said a despondent Deogun:
"We are paying no dividends this year. We are losing almost four rupees on every kilogram of tea
that we produce and if our losses continue to gallop we will not be able to hold out much
Much the same situation exists in most tea estates today. At least four major estates have
become "sick" and one in Tamil Nadu is facing closure.
Declining Prices: Several factors have contributed to the tea industry's cupful of troubles.
Prices, for one thing, have been showing a depressing trend in the last three years. In the 1977
London auctions Indian tea prices touched a peak at 162 pence per kg but steadily declined after
that and last June stood at a sorry 100.9 pence per kg, an almost 40 per cent drop.
The average price of north Indian teas at the Calcutta and Gauhati auctions, which registered a
marginal increase of only 29 paise per kg last year stood at Rs 14.02. This was almost two
rupees less than the 1977 price. During the first six months of 1981 tea prices at Calcutta
auctions plunged.
The overall auction prices stood at Rs 14.34, almost 52 paise per kg less than the price for the
corresponding period last year. South Indian tea fared equally badly. The price at the Cochin
auction which was Rs 14.27 last year fell by almost Rs 1.06 per kg this year.
While prices continue to drop, without showing any signs of perking up, cost of production has
been soaring. Within a span of four years it has risen by 50 per cent. In the tea industry labour
costs account for almost 64 per cent of the total cost of production.
Last year because of a wage hike, cost of production was jacked up by 50 paise per kg for
northern regions. Labour costs rose even more steeply in the south. The daily wage for tea
labour in Kerala went up by Rs 2.26 and in Tamil Nadu by Rs 1.15. Fertiliser and coal prices have
been other bugbears for the tea planters. While fertiliser prices have gone up by more than 30
per cent coal outpaced it with 40 per cent increase.
The result has been a whopping Rs 2.30 rise in the cost of production per kg of tea within a year.
While the total cost of production stood at Rs 14.01 per kg the average auction prices stood at a
measly Rs 14.06. In fact, in 1977 the cost of production of tea was more than the average price
at the auctions in most of the states!

Tea analysts predict that there is bound to be a further increase in the cost of production and the
entire industry will be even more hard hit next year.

Venkataraman: No tax reliefs

The high rate of taxation has made the planters' cup of tea even
more bitter. Tea is the only agricultural and plantation crop which
has the dubious status of having 40 per cent of its income taxable
under the central income tax and the balance 60 per cent under
the state agricultural income tax. Apart from these they have to
cough up sales tax and excise duty.
Said Saroj Mehera, president of Tata Finlays: "The taxation
structure is totally iniquitous and crippling." Much the same
sentiment is reflected by upasj secretary B. Sivaram. Said he:
"There seems to be a tussle between the state and Central Governments to see who can squeeze
more taxes out of us. Neither of them seems to appreciate our dilemma and there is more
politics in our cup of tea than we would like." Mehera wants the Governments to suspend excise
duty, abolish sales tax, withdraw farm wealth tax and reduce agricultural income tax.
Sympathy: This is a tall order but judging by the discussions at the national tea meet both the
Central Government and the states appear to be sympathetic to the plight of the tea planters.
Union Commerce Minister Pranab Mukherjee grudgingly admitted that the situation was
"alarming" and the state and Central Governments agreed that the excise duty and agricultural
income tax should be substantially reduced and sales tax on auction tea suspended.
Mukherjee promised that he would prevail upon the Finance Ministry to introduce these fiscal
reliefs. But despite the sympathy no tax cuts have materialised yet. The Centre has maintained a
studied silence and. except for Kerala which recently ordered a marginal reduction, the state
Governments have not responded either.
Even if the reliefs do materialise ITA chairman Maithel feels that it would ease the situation only
temporarily. Said he: "In the long run we cannot survive on these props. We must work out our
own strategy." The tea growers are now all for forming an international producers' cartel like the
International Coffee Organisation, which could fix export quotas, thereby maintaining tea prices
at a remunerative level.
But in the meanwhile the brew in India's lea cup is turning increasingly bitter and if the
Government does not act soon the potion may turn out to be deadly poison for tea growers.

28 October 2014


by Sindhu Menon

The exploitation of labour in Indias tea industry goes back centuries but the news that almost 100
tea workers in the Dooars region of West Bengal have died over the last 12 months brings the
feudal conditions under which these workers are forced to toil into sharp focus.

Tea pickers at the MMJ Plantation in Kerala stand outside their dilapidated one-room tenement.
(Sindhu Menon)
India is the second-largest tea producing country in the world after China, and the tea industry is
Indias second biggest employer after the railways.
There are various tea growing areas in country but both the wages and working conditions in
West Bengals 300 tea estates are amongst the worst a situation exacerbated by the recent
closure of six tea gardens which made close to 10,000 workers jobless.
Some 200,000 people work in tea plantations in West Bengal, earning poverty wages of about 95
rupees (US$1.50) a day.
By law, employers must supplement these incredibly low wages with housing, food, education and
medical benefits but when the plantations close, these things are no longer available.

Former workers often migrate to find work elsewhere, frequently becoming victims of
forced labour or labour trafficking.
Or they stay, doing what they can to survive which is why some former workers are dying of
starvation and disease.
Take the Dekhlapara Tea Estate in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, for example.
Established in 1921, it has been closed on two occasions over last 12 years following worker
demands for better living and working conditions.
It closed permanently back in 2006, rendering 603 of its permanent workforce jobless.
The company also owes around US$260,000 in back pay and pensions.
From the abandoned tea estate, many ghost workerscontinue to pluck green tea leaves
surrounded by crumbling structures, before selling the tea to agents. For this, they earn 35 rupees
(US$0.57) a day.
Others collect and sell sand or stones from the nearby riverbanks or collect firewood from the
nearby forests, for which they earn about 40 rupees (US$0.65) a day.
But many simply havent been able to find a way to survive.
Between 2013 and 2014, sevenpeople diedfrom starvation, malnutrition and other povertyinduced illness at Dekhlapara.
This July, a 12-member team from the Right to Food Campaignalong with various NGOs and
trade unions, went on a fact-finding mission to five West Bengal tea gardensBandapani,
Dheklapara, Redbank, Surendranagar, and Dharanipur.
The findings were conclusive and shocking.
Not all these deaths were due to starvation, but they were all due to causes associated with
closurehunger, malnutrition and diseasesand the inability to avail of medical treatment due to
poverty, says Franklyn DSouza of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel,
Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers Associations (IUF), who wason the mission.
While on their four-day visit, the group encountered 12 severely malnourished tea pickers in need
of medical assistance. One of them, 23-year-old Mukesh Goala of the Bandapani tea garden,
Poor regulation and management
If 30 per cent of the worlds tea comes from India and West Bengal is one of the countrys most
important tea growing regions, why have so many big tea estates, which produce about 65 per
cent of tea in India, closed down?

The main reason for the closure of tea plantations in West Bengal is due to bad management,
says Ashok Ghosh, General Secretary of United Trade Union Congress, which organises tea
workers throughout the region and has been very active in the negotiations for tea industry
Unlike the situation in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, in West Bengal and Assam, big estates are
government land taken on lease. Every management is ambitious about exploiting the land and
makingprofit, for which they suppress the workers rights and subjugate them as slaves, he says.

The majority of the big estates are owned by individuals who run them as personal
fiefdoms. If selling tea is no longer profitable, they simply switch to real estate.
As one estate manager explained: Unlike some cereals, tea does not have a floor price. There is
no assurance of a constant price.
J. John, a labour rights expert and a member of the government-initiated Working Group on
Policy Framework for Plantation Labour, acknowledges the apparent contradiction of the industry.
On one hand we have an increase in tea production in India but on the other hand there have
been a growing number of closures of big tea plantations, he says.
Small tea growers [small farmers with plots ranging from two to 20 hectares] contribute to more
than 30 per cent of the tea produced in India today. In this sense, the production of tea by small
farmers has contributed to the decline of tea plantations.
However, John admits there is more to it than that.
The underlying factor is the industry-wide separation of agricultural activities, that produce raw
tea leaves, from the commercial application of processed tea, because the value accrued is
disproportionately high at the latter stage, John adds.
Among other things, profit margins at the commercial stage are protected by keeping the prices
of green tea low on the one hand, and decreasing the compensation to workers on the other.
Therefore, small farmers and workers are in constant threat of deprivation.
And under both models, wages remain rock-bottom.
Extreme impoverishment is endemic in tea estates, closed or otherwise, says John.
Even worse for women
Tea workers all over the country tend to live in one-room tenements provided by the employer,
although accommodation isnt always provided. The conditions are generally speaking, pathetic
as Ranajit Guha, General Secretary of All India Trade Union Congress, West Bengal puts it.
The squalor and the ramshackle houses are enough to reveal how the workers are being treated
by the management, he adds.

In Kerala, things arent much different. Pointing to the dilapidated walls of her one-room shack
provided for by MMJ Plantations in Vagamon, in Keralas Idukki district, Pazhaniamma tells Equal
Times: A pig sty is better than this place. Six of us stay here. No repair work has been done ever,
and we are sure in the next monsoon, it will collapse.
There are no sanitation facilities, which is particularly difficult and dangerous for women.
We use the open space for our daily needs, so we have to go either early morning or wait for
darkness, says Murugatha, a tea worker from the same estate.

In fact, female tea pickers, who constitute around 53 per cent of the workforce, face a
number of challenges.
Roll No. 2065 is how one tea picker is referred to on her work documents for MMJ Plantations.
But at home, this mother-of-three is simply known as Rugmini.
She started working for the plantation at the age of nine. For 19 years she was a casual labourer.
Now, as a permanent employee, the 49-year-old widow earns a daily wage of 216 rupees (US$
3.5) which is more than twice the average wage in West Bengal.
Still, Rugminis life is very hard.
She has to report to work at 7.50 a.m but her eight hour work day begins many hours before that
with a number of household chores ranging from fetching water to cooking and cleaning.
Persistent fever, cough, backache and arthritis are common among workers.
Functioning estates usually have some sort of medical facilities but once they close down, former
workers have to look for private healthcare.
We do not have food to eat, and how can we think of going to a private hospital? asks one tea
In terms of solutions, the Indian government recently launched emergency food and medical aid
for affected tea workers.
In addition, negotiations for a new sectoral minimum wage will begin in November (the existing
agreement expired in March).

The tea trade unions in India are calling for an increased wage but it is worth
remembering that most estate owners are not even meeting the minimum wage.
While attending a tea industry stakeholders meeting in Assam earlier this month, Nirmala
Sitaraman, the State Minister for Commerce and Industry, has to ask remind estate owners that
they are legal obliged to pay the minimum wage to the tea workers and that the financial worth
of workers benefits should not be taken into account.

But either way, it will take more than recommendations and promises to ensure real change for
these vulnerable workers.
There are about 31,000-odd workers on about 40 estates in West Bengal that have jobs but are
struggling without proper wages, medical facilities, pathetic housing or drinking water, says Chitta
Dey, convener of the Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers, a conglomeration of 23
different tea worker unions.
The united voice of the workers through massive protests this is the only option left, he says.

Kerala raises tea workers' wages

Decision fails to enthuse workers
George Joseph | Mumbai October 8, 2015 Last Updated at 00:14 IST

The Kerala government cleared a package for tea plantation workers on Wednesday. This includes raising the daily
wage from Rs 232 to Rs 350 and introducing health insurance for workers. The state government will also help with
repairs of workers quarters in plantations.
The decision was based on the report by a committee, which was set up after workers launched agitation across tea
plantations in the state.
However, the state governments decision failed to enthuse plantation workers, who have decided to intensify their
ongoing strike. They are demanding a minimum daily wage of Rs 500. Following the state governments decision,
Plantation Labour Committee (PLC) met in Thiruvananthapuram. Labour minister Shibu Baby Johnsuggested
awarding an interim relief, but the trade unions did not accept it. The minister said further action would be taken after
consulting chief minister Oommen Chandy.
The next PLC meeting is scheduled for November 9 as the local body election process is on now. B K Ajith,
secretary, Association of Planters of Kerala, told Business Standard that the plantation owners were ready to accept
the interim relief, but trade unions rejected. Trade union leaders said they would start a hunger strike from Thursday
onwards in Munnar.

Southern tea industry in dire straits as

prices tumble
Price falls by 21% in two years, rising input and labour costs squeeze producers' margins
Dilip Kumar Jha | Mumbai September 10, 2015 Last Updated at 17:08 IST

The South Indian tea industry finds itself in a fiscal abyss, with its once-financial strength severely eroded over the
past two years due to a steep fall in prices and a sharp increase in input cost and labour wages.
After a steep 15.48% fall in 2014, tea prices in the region, which accounts for 22% of Indias total production, have
slumped another 7% so far this calendar year to average at Rs 80.42 per kilogramme. India's tea exports have also
declined by 4.97 million kg to 107.92 million kg by July this calendar year as compared to 112.89 million kg in the
same period last year.
India's tea output remained stagnant over the last several years at around 1200 million kg. North eastern states like
Assam and West Bengal contribute a major portion of the remaining 78% of India's tea output.
"The tea industry is gravely concerned about the current price levels which had pushed the industry to a deep
crisis," said Vijayan Rajes, President, The United Planters' Association of Southern India (UPASI).
"The financial strength of tea industry is severely hit due to steep decline in realisation and increase in cost of
production. (The) Current crisis is comparable to the darkest phase in the tea sector during the beginning of this
century, said Rajes. The industry was just about managing without any significant profits for the last many years."
The central government had in 2002 permitted foreign direct investment (FDI) of up to 100% in tea plantations, with
certain conditions that were removed in 2013. However, no worthwhile FDI has flowed into the region, suggesting
that the financial strength of the industry is not conducive to attracting foreign investment.
India's tea industry also faces stiff competition in terms of exports from other nations such as Sri Lank and Kenya
which are more competitively priced due to lower production costs.
Productivity has to increase if the tea sector in India has to survive and move forward. At the current price levels,
plantations will have no option but to cut production costs by stopping all developmental works and cutting down on
input costs which will in turn reduce employment, said Rajes.

Kerala Govt in a fix over plantation wage issue

G.K. Nair

A plantation worker plucking tea in an estate in Kerala. The tea industry is going through a crisis with low prices forcing some estates to fully or
partially shut down their factories.

KOCHI, May 22
THE Kerala Government appears to be in dilemma on the long-term wage settlement for plantation workers, as
it cannot antagonise the workers or the managements.
While admitting the fact that the plantation industry, especially tea, is in dire straits because of low prices
prevailing in the market in recent years, a senior labour department official toldBusiness Line that the
Government was not in favour of effecting any cut in the wages of plantation workers.
But some kind of formula had to be worked out whereby both the industry and the workers would not have to
lose much.
Because of the low prices, the industry has been losing heavily and the Government cannot ignore this reality,
he added.
If the tea plantations continued to incur losses, they might be forced to stop operations. Already, some have
closed down their activities in the estates and tea factories in the Peerumedu and Vandiperiyar areas of Idukki
district, while many have not been able to pay wages for months.
"Only the major corporates have managed to keep their operations afloat. Such a situation cannot be allowed as
it would render thousands of workers jobless. The survival of the industry is essential for the survival of the
At the same time, the demand of the managements to raise the standard output might deprive the workers of
additional wages. Therefore, a settlement has to be worked out suiting both parties and beneficial to both.
The official also said that the State cannot effect any curtailment of labour rights. However, reforms in labour
laws are being worked out keeping in view the changes taking place following the opening up of the country's

For instance, the draft Bill relating to headload workers for amending the Trade Union Act would be presented in
the Assembly's next session, he said.
The settlement reached recently between the plantation workers and the managements is a "temporary truce''
under which the industry has agreed to continue to pay the wages as per March 31 levels until further
settlement is reached.
Meanwhile, Mr N. Dharmaraj, Vice President (Plantations), Harrisons Malayalam Ltd and Vice-Chairman,
Association of Planters of Kerala (APK), told Business Line that the token productivity increase was agreed upon
at the behest of the Labour Minister in order to pave the way for arriving at a smooth settlement.
"This increase is far from the levels required to help the industry's survival,'' he added.
According to him, the whole issue relating to productivity has to be reviewed.
"Productivity has to considerably increase for tea, coffee and rubber, without which we cannot compete in the
international market. We are the high cost producer and unless we make a substantial reduction in cost, our
survival will be in doubt.''
Mr Dharmaraj also said that if the industry got a higher standard output, it would reduce the unit cost. "Then
we will be able to pay higher rate of remuneration. We are also ready for piece-rated work and ready to
enhance the payments."
The industry has worked out a "good formula" by which at least 90 per cent of the workers would have an
increase in their earnings. Currently, 60 per cent of the cost of production is accounted for by wage cost; hence,
significant improvement in the productivity norms was inevitable.
The formula worked out by the planters would be presented before the Government and the trade unions and
then discussed in detail, he said. The workers want to be educated about the formula and the importance of
higher productivity, he added.

Plantation workers in Kerala to go

on indefinite strike
From today, September 28, 2015, the plantation workers in Kerala will go on
an indefinite strike demanding a wage hike. The decision was taken by
representatives of various trade unions after talks with the Plantation Labour
Committee failed (PLC).
The workers, had earlier launched a nine-day agitation demanding Rs 500 as daily wage and a 20% bonus.

Chief Minister of Kerala Oommen Chandy, on Sunday, after meeting

representatives of women tea plantation workers said that the state government
will not take any decision which can destroy the sector. Chandy said,
"Government will not take any decision which will destroy the plantation
sector. All issues are expected to be resolved at the Plantation Labour
Committee meeting convened by the government on September 29."
Earlier the plantation managements had said that any wage hike will drastically
affect the plantations, and might even lead to a lock out situation.
According to reports, the prices of tea in South India during the calendar
year 2014 had dropped by Rs 15.85 per kg compared to 2013, and the
prices have further dropped by Rs 6.08 per kg to reach Rs 80.42 in
August, 2015.
At this juncture, the tea plantations are going through an unprecedented crisis
and this agitation by the workers is considered as one of the darkest phases of
the tea plantation industry in the country.
Plantation workers, currently, receive Rs 232 per day for 12 hours of work.

Kerala accounts for 46 percent of total area of plantation in India, and accounts
for 27 percent of net cultivated area in the state.

It is now possible that the tea plantation workers agitation may soon be joined by workers from other
plantations including, rubber, coffee, and cardamom.

Storm in a tea garden


A spontaneous agitation by a collective of women labourers has thrown Keralas

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. By R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram
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 Keralas 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 (Womens 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 companythe 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 themLissy Sunny, Gomathy, Rajeswari, Jayalaksmi and so onnames
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 worlds 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
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.

munnars 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 womens movement and the
emergence of a group of unsophisticated but extremely focussed leaders from among themwomen 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 States politicians, keep the trade unions at a safe distance, interact

directly with the Ministers, and openly rebuke mischievous elements from across the States 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.

Production cost Rs. 60, auction price Rs. 47

As tea estates are closing down, 70,000 plantation workers in Kerala face joblessness. M Suchitra and M P Basheer report from
01 May 2003 Velankanni was good at her studies and she had no plans to become a tea estate worker like her parents. The ninth-class student of the Government High
School at Vagamon pursued her studies seriously with dreams of securing a salaried job and relieving her family of its debt burden. Her parents still recall that
many times they had told her to quit her studies, after they lost their jobs in a tea estate of Ram Bahadoor Tagore Tea Company three years ago. We could
not buy books or school uniform for her. She had borrowed a set of uniforms from a classmate who lived in our neighbourhood. One day that too wore out,
and her classmates made fun of her, says Velankannys mother Mariyammal.
What she does not add is that the same evening, the young Velankanni ended her life by hanging herself from the roof of their tiny cottage inside the estate.
The 14-year-old Velankannis is the fourth suicide in the past six months in tea estates of Peerumade taluk, the largest tea production centre in South India.
And the 54-year-old Mariyammal and her husband are among the 70,000 plus plantation workers in Kerala who are in the grip of starvation following the
closing down of several small and medium tea companies due to sharp fall in the prices of tea in the international market. Kerala has over a million people
depending on tea plantations for their living. Out of 32 tea factories functioning in Peermade taluk, 18 have been closed down and 13 tea estates have been
abandoned by their owners leaving around 30,000 people jobless in High Ranges alone.
The situation has reached such a critical stage that most of the companies are not in a position to pay the prescribed wages, apart from meeting other
obligations as per service rules. There are plantations that have not paid wage arrears and have diverted the welfare funds of the workers into their operations
in a desperate bid to stay afloat. In Peerumade taluk alone, employees have to receive Rs. 100 crores as pending wages. I have to get Rs. 22,000 from my
company as my wage arrears. There are many others like me who are yet to receive the wage arrears, says Selvaraj, 32, a worker of the Cheenthilar first
division of Peermade Tea Company. There are around four hundred families and 2000 people in this division alone. For generations we have been working
here. We have no other place to go and none of us know any other job than the estate work,
adds Selvarajs fellow worker Rajan.
As estates started closing down one after another, a number of men have already migrated to
distant cities to try their luck as casual labourers. Many women have even turned to prostitution
with the consent of their husbands to make both ends meet, as alternative employment is
unavailable in the locality. My daughter had run away some months ago. For months we had no
news about her. A few days back she turned up and gave us Rs1000. She told us that she had got a
job in the city. We dont know what exactly she is doing, says Revamma, 38, a worker in M M
J Tea Estate, Vagamon. Her husband Tharanan died eight months ago due to starvation. Both she and her husband had to get a good amount as wage arrears
when the owners of the estate simply abandoned it, leaving more than 2000 employees in the lurch.
Shammuthai, a 45-year-old woman, says many families in these estates can afford only one meal in two days. Since electricity connections have been cut off
in these abandoned estates, taps run dry. Dispensaries which were functioning inside the estates are now closed down. Five persons, including a seven-monthold child have died in last six months without proper medical care. My father was sick and was being treated in the dispensary inside the estate. When the
estate was abandoned the dispensary stopped functioning. After that, my father didnt get any treatment and died three months back, says Christhu Raj, 19,
son of Varghese who was an employee in the Peermade Tea Company that had been closed for three years. His family couldnt afford to take him to hospitals
in cities. They have to walk around 20 kms to reach outside the estate.
Until the WTO regime began, plantation products from Kerala found excellent markets and earned considerable foreign exchange.
It is not only the workers who are feeling the punch but the estate managers too. In some corporate plantations even the senior managers have not been paid
their salaries for months. The crisis is hitting almost all sections in the tea plantation industry and the business activities related to it. Like Muhammed who
was running a small provision shop in Cheenthilar Estate, many have had to down shutters. The nearby town of Elappara, usually one of the few centres of
hectic commercial activities in Idukki district, now wears a deserted look on the weekly shopping days of workers.
Economists and trade union activists attribute the crisis to the negative impact of the globalization and World Trade Organisation. Until the WTO regime
began, plantation products from Kerala tea, coffee, cardamom and pepper - found excellent spice markets and earned considerable foreign exchange. India
produces 850 million kilos of tea annually. The internal consumption is 670 million kilos. By exporting 180 million kilos of tea India was accumulating a
big sum in its foreign reserve. But the globalization-oriented new import policy has undermined the situation, says P S Rajan, President, Hill Ranges Estate
Employees Association.
When the Indian markets were opened to foreign goods, tea dusts from 13 countries started to flood in. Sri Lankan tea is imported by paying merely 7.4% of
import duty. Though the import from Sri Lanka - 15 million kilos - is only a small percentage of the total Indian production, it is creating havoc in the South
Indian market, especially in Kerala. Producers from South India were demanding a sharp increase in the import duty for Sri Lankan tea. But the government
increased the duty from 7 per cent to only 15 per cent, says Lalaji Babu, General Secretary, All India Plantation Workers Federation, CITU. South Indian
planters have asked the government to raise import duties on plantation crops. They argue that the customs duty on tea and coffee could be increased to bound
rates even as per WTO norms. Nonetheless, the government has been going ahead with the move to bring down import tariffs on agricultural products under
the WTO pact.

Surplus production and reductions in tariff barriers are said to be the main reasons for the present crisis in the tea gardens in the state. Prices of most
plantation products - tea, coffee and rubber - in both domestic and international markets have been witnessing a steady decline over the years. Tea is the worst
hit with the price well below the cost of production. The average auction price of the tea at present is Rs. 47 per kg against the cost of production of Rs. 60 per
kg. This is a market-driven humanitarian crisis. It is the result of the wrong policy initiatives of the Central Government under globalization agenda,
points out C. S Rajan.
Keralas labour minister Babu Divakaran also blames the WTO. Tea industry the world over has plunged into a crisis owing to globalization policies. A
small state like Kerala is incapable of solving the issue singularly. We are pleading our case with the Centre, says Divakaran.
The tea growers associations in the state have called upon the government and the trade unions to jointly evolve strategies to rescue the closed tea factories
and to solve the crisis. They argue that in the free import scenario, any further escalation in wages without corresponding increases in productivity would spell
doom for the industry. The trade union leaders believe that slashing wages is a part of an attempt by the planters to use the crisis to exploit workers. The
owners of tea companies have appealed for joint efforts by the management and workers to save the tea sector. But their appeal is not for a joint struggle to
compel the government to reverse the import policy or to get out of WTO. Instead, they are asking the workers to make Indian tea competitive by cutting
down the cost of production through lowering the wages. Why should only the workers bear the burden of globalization? asks Mr. Lalaji Babu. ( Quest
Features and Footage)
M Suchitra and M P Basheer
01 May 2003

Asia-Pacific, Editors' Choice, Featured, Gender, Headlines, Labour, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations, Women & Economy, Women in

Jasmine Revolution Challenges Male Domination of Tea Trade Unions

Thiruvananthapuram, India, Nov 18 2015 (IPS) - Until September this year, Lissie Sunny was not a name known to the Indian
public. All of this changed when this lean and dark woman, working for over a quarter century plucking tea leaves in the misty mountain slopes
of southern India finally had enough and took on one of the most powerful tea companies in the world.

The 47-year-old tea labourer in the Idukki district of the southern state of Kerala, along with 6,000 other ill- educated women labourers held
protests as they said they had been exploited for years and were now ready for their rights. The male labour union leaders were put on notice
the history of male-dominated national trade union politics excluding women was about to change.
Weeks of protests led by Lissie at the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations, controlled by the Indian multinational Tata, which had clamped down on
not only the growing unrest due to exploitation of women workers for years but also the gender-based discrimination in the tea sector.
Lissie with vast support, helped form the Unity of Women, popularly known as Pompilai Orumai (PO) and notched up another victory by winning
three seats in local self-government elections held recently.
Lissie Sunny was then formally elected as the president of PO and said that though the extraordinary rebellion was initially against the unions
decision to cut the bonus paid to tea pickers but the actual revolt has deeper roots.
The unions have been cheating workers for generations. They have a mutual tie-up with the tea company managements. The leaders lead a
flamboyant life; get free company houses to live in. Their children get good education and jobs thanks to the plantation owners, she said.
The labour-intensive tea industry is notorious for low wages and exploitation. Workers get 233 rupees, nearly 3.50 dollars, per day which starts
from 8 AM and carries on until dark. This is half of what a daily wage labourer in Kerala gets. Women workers live in sub-human conditions,
stay in one-bed huts without toilets and other basic amenities, she told IPS.
The women workers accuse the male trade union leaders of ignoring the rights and benefits of women workers while ensuring good positions
and financial benefits for their relatives and dependants.
Meenu Ammal, an illiterate worker, said that a trade union mafia controls tea plantations and takes huge amounts of money from owners in the
guise of labourers welfare.
Most of the male workers are misusing their earnings while disregarding childrens education and medical needs of families. Unions have done
nothing to stop men from drinking liquor. Also, leaders always managed to keep their jobs when some owners abandoned their plantations
following the collapse of tea prices a few years back, she said.
Right activists named the Munnar mobilisation as the Jasmine Revolution in Indias plantation sector, which still suffers from a colonial
hangover, and said that it reflected a strong undercurrent of unity among women to fight against the high-handedness of men in womendominated work sectors.
K. Sahadevan, a well known national human rights activist from Kerala, told IPS that a new trend is forming among women in the country to
come forward for better wages and ensuring other rights of female workers.
There have been a series of strikes led by females in recent times for women. Mainstream trade unions were not involved in these. Most of
these struggles were successful following innovative mobilisation strategies and support from outside the traditional union circles. Women are
losing faith in union leaders sponsored by political parties, he pointed out.
Researchers in gender studies say that the rebellion of the women workers needs to be studied closely with the status of women in Kerala
where development indices like literacy are very high while compared with women elsewhere in the country.
Dr. Sreelekha Nair, an independent researcher in womens studies in Thiruvananthapuram, said the tea workers strike is a landmark struggle
that needs to be recognised for its gender aspect.

The uprising is only an indication of the women workforce coming into their own to fight for their rights. It is true that a space exists in Kerala for
the united workforce to strike. This space was created by the long established trade union culture and a kind of progressive outlook towards
workers. And when this space is claimed by a group that is overwhelmingly gender-based, it kind of shocks the establishment and the existing
machinery that deals with strikes. That is why the government machinery then has to go into overdrive to find a new way to deal with it, she
Observers in New Delhi point out that the unprecedented female rebellion at Munnar has baffled both trade unions and various management
teams in the country and has evoked keen interest among tea workers in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
Dr. Siva Prasad, an expert in labour laws, said the established unions in the country are led by males who are not bothering about the women
workers either in the organized or unorganized sectors.
The unorganised labourers are getting low wages and work on deplorable terms and conditions. The lesson from the strike teaches that a
united struggle for rights would benefit women at large, and female workers could not be easily bluffed by politically-backed union leaders, he
told IPS.

The Woman Worker Re-emerges Lessons from Munnar

SEPTEMBER 15, 2015

tags: Kannan Devan Plantations, Munnar, trade unionism in Kerala,women tea

plantation workers, women workers
by jdevika

For once, the praise of the mainstream media in Kerala does not sound like
empty hyperbole or sickening sycophancy. More than six thousand
women workers were on strike in the Kannan Devan tea estates of
Munnar in defiance of their trade union leaders, seeking higher wages and
equal wages with men workers who are paid more though their work is lighter
and alleging that the trade union leaders were pocketing benefits due to
them. The workers receive very low wages and live under truly
conditions despite the fact that the Kannan Devan Plantations in now
technically under the workers who own sixty per cent of the shares. The
blather about losses in the tea industry conceals the enormous control over
land that the Tatas hold for a trivial sum paid to the government. It also
deflects attention from the serious charges of encroachment made against the
Tatas, which our political class has not pursued much.
While the usual patriarchal tactics of delegitimisation the accusation of
Maoist influence or some other force behind the striking
workers was indeed made in the early days of the strike, it is clear that now
there is a genuine sense of wonder in much of mainstream medias reaction to
the massive show of independence and strength by the women workers of the
tea plantations at Munnar, and the gains they have made. The utterly
patriarchal trade union leadership in Kerala has been rightly shamed when the
women proved that they did not need them at all to mobilize and press for
their demands. Indeed, this is a key message women have often constituted
overwhelming majorities in Keralas power trade unions, especially in the
traditional industries but have never been a force in the leadership or
consulted seriously in shaping the unions priorities or policies. The Munnar
struggle thus falls like a thunderous slap on the cheek on Keralas highly
patriarchal history of trade unionism. It also brings to light one of Keralas
most deprived development minorities the plantation workers who have
been neglected mainly because they are of Tamil-origin, mostly lower-caste
and to a certain extent, spatially confined.

Further, it allows us a chance to reflect on the manner in which mainstream

development and politics shut its eyes to the reality of women labourers in
Kerala who were ever-more overworked and underpaid, in not just the older
labour regimes but the new ones too. The gender of the workers in the new
industries was hardly noticed even. I still remember how a sincere and hardworking young student who wanted to study labour regimes in Kerala came to
me some six or seven years back.Gender is going to be important, I told her.
She shook her head in agreement politely, but it was clear to me that it wasnt
obvious to her at all. After a few months in which she toured her field, she
returned and told me that gender was, indeed, absolutely central to her work
the workers she met in the new post-liberalization workplaces were largely
low-paid, overworked women, and women who were unfamiliar with or
distrusting of, trade unions and unionisation.
Labouring women were almost completely invisibilised in post-1990 Kerala,
and in their place, the active woman recipient of welfare -the SHG Woman
was endlessly discussed. Neoliberal welfare stressed economic security for
women through self-help, and the question of equal pay for equal work,
equality and fairness in working conditions, and many other such socialist
feminist slogans seemed abandoned in the all-round enthusiasm for
promoting self-help -to such an extent that womens self-exploitation when it
happened in governance labour and microenterprise was overlooked. The work
that women did with the panchayats which ought to have been counted as
governance and provisioning labour remained invisible to everyone
including politicians and development bureaucrats. I cant help remembering
how irritated many of them were when in 2008 I reported the findings from
fieldwork in 2006-7, about how Kudumabshree women were being used as
poorly-paid governance and provisioning labour. This was perceived as an
attack on the Kudumbashree.Women workers began to fade out as the figure
of the self-employed woman grew began to be etched in the public imagination
as epitomising the bold public woman. This hid the fact that the dividing line
between the woman worker and the woman recipient of welfare was actually
quite fluid and that the Kudumbashree woman was indeed engaged in newer
forms of labour governance labour and provisioning labour besides care
work and productive labour that were invisible and underpaid. Indeed,
many senior organizers of the state-supported Kudumbashree self-help group
network, who had entered and gained experience in public life as trade union
workers, seemed to have forgotten all of their past and attributed their
knowledge and self-confidence to Kudumbashree.

Perhaps that said something about the woeful little space that the trade unions
have granted women workers, even as it revealed the ideological efficacy of
self-help campaigns. Indeed the shameful responses of the local trade union
leaders, all men, about the womens struggle at Munnar there does is evidence.
But 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. 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.
However, when decisive institutional change allowed the the redoing of the
relation between the Kudumbashree and the panchayats in 2008, some of the
Kudumbashree women challenged their exploitation by rising to becoming
local leaders not universally, for sure, but in pockets, definitely -they were
criticised as moving away from livelihood activities into showy public life, and
of being arrogant and politically ambitious. And they were clearly confined
to gender identities by political parties which sought to organise them: women
in self help groups were organised not as workers but as women, under the
AIDWA. This is despite the fact that Kudumbashree women have been open to
embracing the identity of the worker, as was evident in a number of instances
in which they did organise as Kudumbashree workers (in the
Thiruvananthapuram city sanitation issue, for instance).
The Munnar women workers struggle indicates that while poor women and
their interests cannot be reduced to the poor in general and their interests, the
latter today is unimaginable without the former. Or, one cannot really appeal
to the poor and the oppressed in Kerala without appealing to women. It is
surely not a coincidence that the struggle against predatory capital and the
destruction of common resources through ecological and other struggles here
are often initiated by women even if they are taken over later by men. And it is
not for the first time that women have distrusted men and the male leadership
in struggles that they took a lead in I remember activists who were part of
the anti-sand mining struggle around the Muriyad lake telling me how the
women there were unwilling to hand over the struggle to a male leadership
because they feared that the men would enter into agreements that suited
them and the leadership and forget all about the issue at the heart of their
struggle. While this struggle does not open directly an opportunity to end the
conflict between plantation workers and the landless poor we have been
witnessing in twenty-first century Kerala, it certainly allows for a
reconsideration of the assumed gap between them. This struggle shows the
extent to which plantation labour experience extreme deprivation, an

experience shared by the landless poor in the face of the fact that big capital
that controls plantations has in its hands very extensive government lands,
which it holds at almost no cost. It appears clear, then, that the plantation
labour may find it better to build alliances with the landless poor than serve
big capital, however indirectly, through their hostility towards
encroachmment by the latter. Perhaps women workers will see this better
than the men?
The formation of womens trade unions here SEWA Kerala and Penkoottu
indicates a trend. But even after the Munnar struggle, it appears that women
will not be part of formal negotiations with the government and outcomes
are not certain despite all the celebrations. But the writing on the wall is clear
for anyone who has the eyes to see. And dare I hope a little more, that these
plantation workers will transform themselves into a peoples movement,
allying with the landless poor in Kerala and infuse new life into the nearlydead the politics of welfare by reinterpreting the politics of public action?

Trade union leaders work for themselves, not for worker welfare

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Lissy Sunny, Pompilai Orumai (women tea workers union)

A quarter century of plucking tender tea leaves in the misty mountain slopes of Munnar has left her hands wrinkled, skin
leathery and face weather-beaten. She is lean and dark; and, at 47, looks older than her age. But, Lissie Sunnys smile is
confident and her voice clear. There is a quiet dignity about her manners. She is the public face of the recent jasmine revolution
in the tea gardens. In September, Sunny and other women workers at the Tata-controlled Kanan Devan Tea Company led a
revolt that sent shock waves among members of the trade union mafia that controls Munnars tea plantations. In an unprecedented act that baffled both trade unions and the management, thousands of women tea-leaf pluckers led a successful nine-day
strike for a higher bonus. The strike received wide support from mainstream Kerala society and evoked keen interest among tea
workers in Assam, Darjeeling, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Its success is seen as rejection of the trade unions and the political
class. Many saw in it the emergence of a new trade union culture and a hope for plantation workers across the country.
In an interview to BusinessLine, Sunny, who has just been formally elected President of the women tea workers organisation
Pompilai Orumai, talks about the treachery and exploitation of the trade unions and also about the Orumais decision to contest
the November 5 local body elections.
Are you planning to launch a formal trade union?
Yes, we will get registered as a trade union within a month. A formal union is necessary to get us access to the negotiations
between the plantation managements and the labour unions where others take decisions on our work and wages. During the 17day strike by the joint council of recognised trade unions, which we also supported later on, we were not even invited to the six
rounds of talks called by the government. These unions had gone on strike demanding a daily wage of 500 (for workers of tea,
rubber and cardamom plantations). But finally, at the negotiations, they agreed for just 301 (for tea workers) without even
consulting us. This was outright treachery. The government, the plantations managements and the unions colluded to cheat us.
The unions also agreed to raise the minimum quantum of tea leaves to be picked from 21 kg to 25 kg.

You seem to be extremely angry with the recognised trade unions. Why?
These unions have been cheating us workers for generations. They have a mutual-help relationship with the Kanan Devan
management. The leaders lead a cosy life; get free company houses to live in; their children study at the company school and also
get nice jobs in the company. The company has given some 30 houses to the leaders of the AITUC (the majority union) and
INTUC, while we workers live in dilapidated one-room labour quarters. The company claims it gives everything free to workers,
but the fact is we have to pay. Our strike was not only against the Kanan Devan company, but also against the unions. During
wage negotiation meetings, the union leaders would agree to paltry raises. They get several benefits in return for compromising
on wages and workers welfare.
Your strike is a historical one in Keralas highly unionised work culture. How did it begin?
It was a spontaneous agitation. We were told that this year the bonus would be lower than last years and we knew that the trade
unions would agree to it. You know, for a woman tea worker, the bonus is such an important thing. She plans one year in
advance what to buy, and what loans to be repaid, with the bonus money. When she is told that the bonus would be a half the
anticipated quantum, it upsets her totally. We decided that come what may, we would strike work for a bonus of 20 per cent. On
the first day, there were very few people ready to strike. But from day two, thousands of women workers, risking everything,
including their husbands ire and joined us on the street. They had passion, anger, grief.
How did the unions react?
They were totally nervous. They were afraid that they would lose their relevance. They threatened us, assaulted us, harassed us,
blockaded us, and even asked the shops in Munnar town not to give provisions to the striking workers. They threatened the
workers husbands. But, the entire Kerala society stood by us. And, when our bonus strike succeeded, the unions, in order to
show their dominance, came together to launch an indefinite strike to demand 500 as daily wage.
What is the lesson from the Pompilai Orumai strike?
That workers should unite for their rights. We achieved a lot with our strike. It gave us confidence, it empowered us. Even the
wage hike is the after-effect of our strike for bonus. We called the bluff of these politically-backed trade unions. Trade union
leaders are only interested in their own welfare, not of ours.
Why is Orumai contesting the local body polls?
Pompilai Orumai has put up independent candidates in five Gram Panchayats in Munnar. If we win, we will do our best to secure
all government benefits for the tea workers community

In Kerala, victory for Pombilai Orumai

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The Hindu

The Pompilai Orumai, in protest against the system of gender segregation practised in the plantations, kept at bay not only the male trade
union leaders, but also the men in their own family during the struggle. Photo. K. K. Mustafah

The historic women workers protests that rocked the plantations in Kerala for the last one-and-a-half months, followed closely
by a State-wide struggle, have been called off, following what could at best be described as a mixed outcome from the point of
view of the workers. The plantation managements may consider this as another victory, the workers agreeing to be content with
a 30 per cent hike in wages as against their original demand for a 100 per cent increase. Yet, the struggle has been path-breaking
in that it has helped bring to light the harsh living and working conditions in the colonial-era plantations. It has also exposed the

state, the trade unions and the plantation industry, the first two for their political absence in the region and the third for its
exploitative practices. Though the struggle is over, it does not signify a permanent redress of the workers grievances.
It was on September 5 that the women workers, united under the womens collective that they have named Pombilai Orumai,
began marching in small groups to the headquarters of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Limited (KDHP) in Munnar, Kerala,
challenging their own trade unions and simultaneously demanding a fair increase in their wages and bonus payments. It quickly
turned into a resistance movement without a precedent, with thousands of Dalit women breaking away from their trade unions,
joining the struggle, and representing themselves in a bold rebellion against capitalism and patriarchy, including a maledominated trade union structure.
The struggle, though initially ignored by the media, captured public attention when the women workers gheraoed the KDHP
managing director, and later stopped the local CPI (M) MLA from meeting the striking workers. It triumphed, though only
partially, when the managements agreed to a 20 per cent package, including 8.33 per cent bonus and 11.67 per cent one-time exgratia payment. The managements, however, continued to resist the demand for a hike in wages. The trade unions that had
joined the struggle by this time, however, were adamant that the minimum wage should be raised to Rs. 500. The managements,
however, maintained that the industry could not cope with these demands as there was a drastic decline in net profits: from
Rs.16 crore to Rs.5 crore over the year, due to a decline in tea prices.
Fall in auction prices for tea
While it is true that there was a fall in auction prices, mainly due to overproduction of tea in countries such as Kenya, it is not
clear how a 15-20 per cent decline in prices led to a 66 per cent decline in profits, that too when the companies own records
show a growth in sales. There has also been no significant increase in capital expenditure or in statutory benefits to the workers.
Perhaps the real reason for a fall in profitability lay in the significant increase in depreciation shown in the companys accounts,
which has had the effect of depressing the net profit after tax.
With the mainstream trade unions also entering the protest domain and the Plantation Labour Committee (PLC) meetings
failing to overcome the deadlock after a series of discussions, the workers were plunged into further misery. The struggle then
spread to other regions, taking within its purview workers involved in the plantation of other crops, particularly those working in
cardamom and rubber estates. It finally brought a solution with an increase in the basic daily pay. The basic daily pay of an estate
worker engaged in plucking tea leaves will now be Rs.301 as against Rs.232 earlier, with the addition of various statutory
benefits. This is an increase of 30 per cent from the pre-existing minimum wage, higher than what the trade unions managed to
bargain for in 2013.
The Dalit womens consolidation that emerged in Munnar offers lessons to all the three agencies involved in the stir: the state,
the trade unions and the plantation management. While the state and the trade unions were politically absent in Munnar, and
more so in the remaining plantation belts, the plantation managements turned their estates into mini empires. While the
absence of the state was a colonial-era legacy, with the colonial plantation managements themselves admitting that they were a
state within state, the situation of the trade unions was different. The unions had earlier been involved in projecting the
workers concerns. However, over the years, their involvement too has become as minimal as that of the state under
The Pompilai Orumai, in protest against the system of gender segregation practised in the plantations, kept at bay not only the
male trade union leaders, but also the men in their own family during the struggle. Pombilai Orumai is now busy building its
own union on its own terms; it has also fielded candidates in the local government elections to be held in early November. The
struggle also reminds us that even within the laudable Kerala model of social development, the Dalit experience leaves much to
be desired. Dalit families have lived in two-room tenements (layams) for generations and their conditions do not reflect the
much-applauded social welfare indicators of the State.
What we have been witnessing in plantations in the post-1991 liberalisation phase is a repetition of history with the burden being
repeatedly transferred to workers and the prosperity being solely enjoyed by the managements. The workers have thus remained
trapped in the global commodity chain for decades. There has also been a gradual removal of their rights. Neither the state nor
the trade unions seem politically equipped to challenge this.

The Indian women who took on a multinational and won

Justin RowlattSouth Asia correspondent

19 October 2015

From the sectionIndia

Image copyrightGetty ImagesImage captionThe women have taken on not only the company that employs them
but also the trade unions supposed to represent them
This is the story of an extraordinary uprising, a movement of 6,000 barely educated women
labourers who took on one of the most powerful companies in the world.
In a country plagued by sexism they challenged the male-dominated world of trade unions and politics, refusing
to allow men to take over their campaign.

And what's more, they won.

You may well have enjoyed the fruits of their labour. The women are tea pickers from the beautiful south Indian
state of Kerala. They work for a huge plantation company, Kanan Devan Hills Plantations, which is part-owned
and largely controlled by the Indian multinational, Tata, the owner of Tetley Tea.
The spark that ignited the protest was a decision to cut the bonus paid to tea pickers, but its roots go much
deeper than that.

Going solo
Tea workers in India are not well treated. When I investigated the industry in Assam last month I
found living and working conditions so bad, and wages so low, that tea workers and their families were left
malnourished and vulnerable to fatal illnesses.
It seems conditions in Kerala are not much different.
Part of the women's complaint is that they live in one-bed huts without toilets and other basic amenities and,
while they earn significantly more than the tea workers in Assam, they say the 230 rupees (2.30; $3.50) they
are paid for a day's work is half what a daily wage labourer in Kerala would get.
Image caption"We pick the tea and carry the bags on our shoulders, you carry off the money bags"
But when, in early September, the women in Kerala demanded the bonus be reinstated - along with a hike in
daily wages and better living conditions - it was not just a challenge to the company that employs them, but also
to the trade unions that are supposed to represent them.
The women workers say the male trade union leaders are in cahoots with the company management, denying
women their entitlements while ensuring they get the plum jobs themselves.
When tea prices collapsed a few years back, and some estate owners abandoned their plantations, the women
argue that trade union leaders always managed to keep their jobs.
They also say that the trade unions haven't done enough to stop their men from drinking away their earnings
without regard for their children's education or the medical needs of their families.
And they showed that they could launch an effective protest without the help of the trade unions.

'Women's Unity'
When 6,000 women occupied the main road to the headquarters of the plantation company it was organised by
the women themselves, most of whom have no history of union agitation.
They called themselves "Pempilai Orumai", or women's unity.
In effect the women laid siege to the Munnar, one of Kerala's most popular tourist destinations. Trade and
tourism were brought to a near standstill.
Many slogans were directed squarely at the union leaders. "We pick the tea and carry the bags on our shoulders,
you carry off the money bags," read one. "We live in tin sheds, you enjoy bungalows," said another.
Image captionA group of semi-literate women had taken on the most powerful interests in the state and won.

When male trade union leaders tried to join the protest they were chased away. The women attacked one former
trade union leader with their sandals. He had to be rescued by the police.
In another incident they tore down the flag poles outside the trade union offices.
They also saw off local politicians who wanted to be seen offering their support.
The women insisted they would continue the protest until their demands were met.
At first the plantation company was defiant but, after nine days of protest and marathon negotiations overseen
by the chief minister of the state, it gave in.
It was a stunning victory: a group of semi-literate women had taken on the most powerful interests in the state
and won.
The women had represented the workforce at the talks and forced management to accept their demand to bring
back the 20% bonus. Meanwhile the male trade union leaders had to swallow their pride and sign the deal the
women had negotiated.

Nothing to lose
But the battle isn't over yet.
The issue of the pay rise was to be negotiated separately and, when the women's demand for an increase in
wages wasn't met, the unions launched an indefinite campaign to raise rates from 232 rupees to 500 rupees a
In part this was an attempt to seize the initiative back, following the success of the women's campaign.
Image caption"We won't allow anyone to exploit us. Enough is enough."
The women have refused to be part of the union effort and launched their own independent demand for higher
Earlier this month some male union activists are alleged to have attacked the women's demonstration by
throwing rocks. Six people suffered minor injuries.
But the women are determined to continue. "We have nothing to lose", Lissy Sunny, one of the leaders of
Pempilai Orumai, told the Indian news website Catch.
"Hunger and suffering are part of our lives. We don't care even if we starve to death.
"But we won't allow anyone to exploit us. Enough is enough."

Kerala plantation workers end stir



A group of tea plantation staff at Meppadi turned up for work on Thursday after the agitation that lasted for over two weeks, demanding an
increase in bonus and other incentives, ended
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17 days after the strike began, plantation cos agree to hike wage slightly
After 17 days of striking work, the majority of the 10,000 or so workers at the Tata Tea-controlled Kanan Devan tea company
returned to the plantations here on Thursday following a government-brokered agreement on a wage hike, in
Thiruvananthapuram, on Wednesday evening.

Not satisfied
While most of the workers are happy that the strike has come to an end, they are not satisfied with the quantum of the wage hike
the organised trade unions had promised to secure double the current daily wage.
The unions had said that they would get us 500 as daily wage instead of the current 232, Kannakai (52), a tea-leaf plucker,
told BusinessLine. What they have got us is just 301 a day.
The disappointment is obvious in the faces of the workers, while they are also relieved that the strike, which had begun on
September 28, is over.
At the sixth round of talks over the past three weeks at the statutory Plantation Labour Committee on Wednesday, the
managements and the recognised central trade unions in the plantation sector agreed on a package deal.
Accordingly, the workers in the tea plantations will get a Basic Daily Wage of 301 (this would mean a total daily wage of 436,
including fringe benefits).
There was an understanding at the PLC negotiations that the productivity per worker would be raised from 21 kg tea leaves a day
to 25 kg, but this has not officially been announced.
Slight increase
The rubber workers Basic Wage has been increased from 317 to 381 (total wages will be 552), while that of cardamom
plantation workers will go up to 330 (total wages 478), from the current 267.
The joint council of recognised central trade unions in the plantation sector mostly tea, rubber and cardamom workers in
corporate plantations had gone on strike following the success of a nine-day strike by around 5,000 women workers at Kanan
Devan Hills Plantations Private Limited last month demanding a bonus of 20 per cent.
The loosely-knit womens collective, later known as Pompilai Orumai, had challenged the trade union dictatorship, which they
alleged had colluded with the managements to deny them due benefits.
Threatened by the unprecedented unity of the non-unionised women workers success, the recognised unions, to up the ante,
demanded 500 as the wage and launched an indefinite strike on September 28.
However, the trade unions, well aware that the industry cannot afford to double wages, finally agreed to a far lower wage on
Wednesday evening and immediately announced that the strike was off.




Women tea workers in Munnar allege union-management collusion over pay


Women tea workers in Munnar

allege union-management
collusion over pay
Over 6,000 women tea plantation workers in Kerala's hill station of Munnar
have decided to protest protest against trade unions that allegedly collude
with the plantation management.
By: M Sarita Varma | September 11, 2015 12:39 AM

Over 6,000 women tea plantation workers in Keralas hill station of Munnar have decided to protest
protest against trade unions that allegedly collude with the plantation management. The women,
working in Kanan Devan Hills Plantation (KDHP) Company (formerly Tata Tea), have been on strike
from Sunday, alleging that the trade union leaders have been pocketing their rightful share of
monetary entitlements like bonuses.
We pick the tea leaves, we heave the sacks of tea leaves, you heave the sacks of money leaves,
there has to be an end to this, says a slogan at a Munnar tea plantation, in the Idukki district of
Kerala. Men hardly get tough chores like us, Ananthalakshmi, who has been a tea plucker in the
plantation for over 20 years, told FE. We even load the sacks to the trucks and are disproportionately
At present, they get Rs 170 to Rs 230 per working day, which often stretches to 12 hours. The men,
according to them, get the same wages for lighter tasks like fostering the plants. Women workers
have been demanding a salary of Rs 500 and a bonus of 20%. Political leaders and trade union
leaders have notably kept away from the scene of protest for the last five days.
On Sunday, the protesting women workers even laid siege to the trade union offices. On Tuesday, the
traffic on the Kochi-Dhanushkodi national highway was paralysed for most of the day, due to the
magnitude of the protest.
The stir by estate workers has battered the tourism industry a good deal. Visitors to Munnar have

been stuck inside their hotels as they are unable to move around the hill station due to the blockade.
Hotels have started complaining of cancellations of bookings because of the troubled atmosphere.
The women workers are not mincing words while making allegations against the union leaders. All
trade unions, affiliated to the major political parties in Kerala, CPI(M), CPI and Congress, have been
equally guilty of conniving with the plantations management to keep women workers from getting their
due entitlements. They have been pocketing money from the management. Some of them have
become members of the state assembly, utilising the social power and money attained by playing
middlemen between workers and management says Ratnamani, whose family has been working in
Munnar plantations for three generations.
Although the BJP called for a bandh in Idukki district, the striking women did not allow the party to
intervene in the issue.
Officials at the labour commissioners office say that they had convened a meeting of the workers,
representatives of the company management and trade unions to discuss the grievances. However,
the meeting failed to cobble up a consensus.
Meanwhile, the KHDP management claims it was the fall in profits from the previous years that had
forced them to reduce the bonus. The company incurred a fall in its income by 68% in 2014-15
compared with the previous year.
The company had, in a press release, clarified that the decision was taken after consulting the
leaders of the main trade unions. While the women workers have demanded 20% bonus, the
company is willing to give 10%.
* At present, the women workers get Rs 170 to Rs 230 per working day, which often stretches to 12
* The women workers have been demanding a salary of Rs 500 and a bonus of 20%

The hidden injuries of caste: south Indian tea workers and economic crisis
Economic crisis has pushed Indian tea workers to seek employment outside the plantations, forcing them to re-engage with
the caste hierarchy from which their ancestors attempted to escape.

Tea pickers returning with sacks of tea in Munnar, India.

jonbrew/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Tea plantation workers are one of the most stigmatised and marginalised communities in India. While the majority of workers on the
plantations in the northeast were originally brought from Bihar, Orissa and Nepal, it is Tamil-speaking Dalits (so-called
untouchables/outcasts) who constitute the majority of the labour force in Kerala, south India. Their outcast social status has combined
with their identities as manual labourersalso known as Tamil cooliesto perpetuate their economic underdevelopment and social
marginality. Although Kerala has undertaken many reforms to address marginalised populations, those who entered into the indentured
plantation labour system have remained excluded and marginalised from Indian society as a whole.
On plantations themselves, however, the picture is more complicated. Until recently, plantations operated as semi-autonomous socioeconomic systems that were largely separate from the wider economic and cultural contexts in which they operated. This isolation
afforded tea workers some protection from direct, daily exposure to stigma and discrimination on the basis of caste. Plantation workers,
after years of struggle, were even provided with certain welfare measures such as housing and healthcare. Such privileges are not
enjoyed by informal sector workers, even those who belong to less stigmatised and excluded groups, and access to these rights gave
tea workers a sense of worth within the plantation system.

Caste and crisis: isolated no more

Indian tea production has been in severe crisis since the mid nineties largely due to neo-liberal structural adjustments in the Indian
economy. The size of the tea industry, which is second only to China and accounts for 25 percent of global tea production, has made
this a huge blow to the countrys agrarian economy. The industry employs 1.26 million people on tea plantations and two million
additional people indirectly. As such, the economic crisis has had an enormous impact on the lives of local residents. In Kerala where I
have been conducting research, there have been eight cases of suicide and twelve deaths due to starvation on tea plantations since
2001. Along with utter poverty and famine, tea plantation workers have faced increasingly unhygienic work environments, shattered
social life/community relations, and withdrawal of the welfare measures previously enjoyed.

The crisis punctured the isolated environments of the plantations and precipitated neoliberal reforms that closed down production in
many areas either partially or completely. While many families remained on the plantations, large numbers of workers who had lived
there for more than five generations were now compelled to seek work outside. Some went with their families to either their ancestral
villages or regional industrial townships such as Coimbatore and Tirupur in Tamil Nadu.
These plantation workers have now joined the ranks of the massive Dalit workforce powering Indias unorganised and informal sectors.
In joining that pool of workers, Tamil Dalit labourers are exposed to aspects of a caste-ridden society from which they had previously
been shielded. The situation of Saraswathi, a female retired worker in her early sixties, illustrates the dilemma and struggles of the
workers who moved out the plantations.
Saraswathi moved to her ancestral village in southern Tamil Nadu in the wake of the crisis. In the village, the untouchable Dalits do not
have the right to sit inside the teashop and drink tea nor do they have the right to drink tea in a glass cup (kuppi glass). The Dalits have
to stand outside the teashop and have to drink either from a coconut shell or a steel cup depending upon the availability. Having always
lived on a plantation where job title rather than caste identity was more significant in shaping social relations, Saraswathi and her family
were not used to these explicit, everyday forms of untouchability rooted in the ritual aspects of the caste system. They had grown up
enjoying the relatively egalitarian social relations that existed on plantations, where the caste status did not necessarily yield more
power to the higher castes. The caste humiliation they experienced in Kallupetti was thus intense. In other words, the economic crisis
and the consequent denial of livelihood forced the plantation Tamil Dalits to return to the caste atrocities from which their forebears had
escaped by migrating to the plantations.
Saraswathi couldnt conceal her caste identity in the village where everybody knows each other. For Gokul, a 27-year-old tea plantation
worker who migrated to the bustling city of Chennai, the story has been different. Gokul found a job in the biggest retail shop in Chennai
as a sales boy in the bags section. To do this Gokul disguised his caste, introducing himself as a Christian and refusing to answer any
questions that would reveal his real caste identity. Since Gokul presented himself as a Christian, the owner of the shop might have
thought that he was from Nadar caste (there is a significant percentage of Christians among the Kerala Nadars, unlike their counterparts
in Tamil Nadu). Gokul reported that the owner and other staff in the shop always spoke highly of their own caste yet used degrading
racial slurs against the other lower castes in Gokuls presence, as if Gokul shared such attitudes. His projection of an alternative identity
to hide his Dalit identity, as I understood from observing and talking to him, was necessary for him to avoid what he said were certain
unnecessary experiences in the workplace.
The urban migration of youth can be seen as a step towards upward social mobility. However migration and settlement can, at the same
time, reassert a stigmatised identity and thwart ambitions of social advancement. Using other identities as a mask (as a way to pass in
Gokuls words) echoes the situation of blacks in colonial-racial contexts, discussed by Frantz Fanon in Black Skins, White Masks. Fanon
proposed a radical denial of oneself (self-alienation) as a way to escape racial discrimination and oppression. In the Indian context, the
plantation Dalits are forced to become other than themselves in order to make their way through the system. For tea workers, caste
both as an identity and as a relational organising principlehas been revitalised by processes of neoliberal economic reform.