The Anniversary of Unity

orumai_tattoo2

A few weeks ago, I had this tattooed on my wrist. It’s the word ‘orumai’ in Tamil.

This may seem like taking blog advertising a little too far. But there’s more to it than that.

One year ago I found myself standing in the middle of an historic moment in Munnar, Kerala.

The moment when thousands of women rose up against their paternalistic tea plantation managers, their male-dominated trade unions and politicians and said ‘you’ve let us down, so now we are going to stand up for ourselves’.

They called themselves Pembila Orumai – Unity of Women.

It was a turning point.

Traditionally the least powerful, most silent, biddable segment of society – lower caste, female, poor – they suddenly became the most powerful. They brought not one but two of Munnar’s major industries to a standstill, tea and tourism.

Downtrodden workers in plantations all over Kerala followed suit. Women working in the fishing industry and the garment industry were inspired by them to speak out.

They forced those in power to question themselves and how they had been treating these women for generations.

It was a life changing moment for me, too.

I left my birthplace, Munnar, at the age of nine with a vague sense that things were not right in the world. Moving to the ubiquitous affluence of England a few years later, this sense got stronger and as a teenager, I started volunteering for charities, and later working for them.

Through the various organisations I worked for I tried to help patients of a hospital in West Bengal, orphans in Zambia, refugees in Serbia, people living with HIV in Malawi…

But something still didn’t feel quite right. Yes, all these people needed help, needed justice. But why me? Beyond the sympathy that I felt for their situation and my outrage about the causes of their poverty, what right did I have to interfere in their lives?

I moved from charities to fair trade and ethical trade, and began to learn about global supply chains and how deeply interlinked we are, whether we know it or not, with those who produce what we use, wear, eat and drink. This felt more relevant.  There was a logic that connected us.

But was even that enough?

“Who is your community” asked Stan Thakaekera – co-founder of Just Change, a unique organisation trading tea grown by tribal people on community principles which I started volunteering for. That’s who you should be connecting with, he said.

And as I stood in the middle of the oncoming river of Pembila Orumai protesters, something infinitely more powerful that logic, sympathy or even outrage overwhelmed me.

It was a sense of community – of unity with these women.

Of course, there is unity in humankind as a whole – the African concept of ‘ubuntu’ which honours that which is human in each of us, regardless of where you are from; the Hindu greeting ‘namaste’ which signifies ‘I bow to the Divine in you’, implying every human contains a spark of the Divine…

But this felt like a more specific unity – if unity can be so subdivided!

I knew at that moment what I must do. I must support these women from my birthplace in their campaign for fair wages and decent working conditions and housing. It seemed to me that my whole career up to this point had prepared me for this, and fate had brought me to this precise spot at this precise moment for a reason.

I am not religious, but a Christian friend recently described this new commitment as my ‘vocation’.

“But it’s much more than a vocation” I protested, thinking of dry vocational guidance sessions at school.

“No, I mean it in the religious sense,” she said; “a calling by God to follow a certain path.”

My road to Damascus was blocked by the bodies of women – bodies that had been broken under the weight of the tea leaves they plucked on the steep hills of Munnar…My road to Damascus was scattered with tea leaves being showered in protest over the immobilised traffic!

One year ago, I set up a daily news update for ‘Munnar’. For the first few months there were daily, then weekly articles about what the Indian media called the ‘stir’.

The women were setting up their own trade union! The established trade unions  were attacking them with stones! The women were standing for election in local government! The leaders had fallen out with each other! One had attempted suicide!

But before long, the only news alerts for Munnar were from Trip Advisor asking for hotel recommendations, photos of misty green hills, sightings of rare butterflies…occasional news items about illegal building projects.

Pembila Orumai seemed like the falling of a vast tree in a forest, crashing with earsplitting force through the branches and, once the echoes had died, silently letting the peace of the countryside flood back in.

But of course, that’s just from the media point of view; the novelty had worn off and like a child that’s tired of a new toy, it has moved on to other shiny things.

Meanwhile, Pembila Orumai has registered as a formal trade union and can therefore now take part in official wage negotiations. They have joined with Aam Admi, an opposition political partly – a party of the people.  And they are continuing their struggle for decent pay and conditions, a less glamorous daily slog, but one with equally profound consequences.

So my tattoo is to remind myself of the unity of humanity.

It is to honour the women who had the courage to stand up in unity and speak out.

And it is to remind myself that a ‘vocation’ is not a passing whim, but a commitment forever.

I will, of course, continue to stand up for anyone whose rights are being abused, but I stand in unity with the women of my birthplace, Munnar.

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What price the prestige of British tea and the dignity of its growers?

Pots of tea will be served in Brew, the tea pub.
Pots of tea will be served in Brew, the tea pub

“The paintings aren’t selling. Change the price tags – put them up by 20%.”

“Put them down by 20%, you mean?”

“No. Up. People will value them more if they cost more.”

My manager at the Commonwealth Institute over 30 years ago was right. The paintings all sold.

In this world of buy-one-get-one-free, pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap and all the other enticements to get more for less, it’s a surprising and thought-provoking conclusion that seems to fly in the face of classical economics.

But should we be surprised that by increasing the price of something we’re increasing its value? Or, by the same token, that by lowering the price of something we’re destroying its value?

One of my favourite characters in the late, great Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels is Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, a seller of pies containing highly dubious meat by-products (“I’ll sell it for less, and that’s cutting me own throat”). If circumstances ever force you to consider buying a pie from C.M.O.T Dibbler – who prophetically predates the horsemeat scandal – you know you have sunk to an unspeakably sordid level, void of hygiene and ethics.

We seem to be getting this same uneasy feeling about our current, mean-spirited BOGOF culture. We’re beginning to ask who pays the real price for these cheapened products? In our heart of hearts we know it’s the labourers in the tea plantations, the garment factories, the shrimp fishing boats…but we don’t know what to do about it.

Of course, it’s true that we all love a bargain – but if we see three similar products at three different prices, if we can afford it, we’ll generally go for the middle one rather than the cheapest. And the early success of the Fairtrade movement proved that people will pay more if they can – and if they believe it will do any good.

Like bananas and milk, tea is often used as a “loss leader” by supermarkets. You can now buy a pack of 40 tea bags for 20p. But by  deliberately making a loss on these British favourites to lead people into their stores, they impoverish the whole value chain, giving no leeway to improve wages, working or living conditions.

So, what if we paid more for our tea? What if we valued it more, took more care over making it? Drank it in beautiful surroundings? What if more of this added value found its way to the women who brave the harsh elements and the sheer hillsides to pluck it?

Someone who hopes to find the answers to these question is Alex Holland. Having helped to save Brixton Market  in 2009, he is now turning his attention to tea.

Alex sees tea as a precious emblem of Britain – “a nation defined by tea drinking”. His mission is to “restore prestige to our national drink by converting Britain to loose-leaf tea” in establishments that will “have the feel of a pub but instead of offering pints of beer, it will serve pots of tea” as well as food and tea-based cocktails such as “oolong martinis”.

It sounds crazy, I know, but the man’s done his homework (using a Human Centred Design process) and this is apparently what the people of Britain want.  Brew, the tea pub will guarantee good prices to small-scale farmers who process their tea crop themselves instead of selling it to a factory. It will provide work experience placements for ex-offenders, and is backed by some pretty successful restaurateurs as well as some 300 crowd-funding investors.

The vast acres of India’s Raj-era tea plantations, rooted in indentured labour and cut-me-own-throat pricing policies, are conjoined with profit-prioritising multi-nationals and “loss-leading” supermarkets. While some are making efforts to improve the lot of plantation workers, there’s probably little hope that this colossal system can ever change enough to allow workers to get a fairer share of the value of the crop they produce.

So perhaps Alex’s refreshingly alternative approach of joining forces with other small, high-value retailers and linking more directly with small tea producers (both of whose numbers are growing) is the answer. By promoting loose, whole-leaf tea instead of dust in tea-bags, perhaps he’ll help overturn the culture that equates workers with dust and managers with whole leaf.

I drink my whole-leaf tea, brought back from my last trip to my birthplace, Munnar, from a beautiful tea pot and matching cup, a gift from a dear friend, looking out over a Clissold Park lake where the ducks, geese and swans are loud with the reproductive joys of spring, below the tapering elegance of St Mary’s church spire. I sip slowly so as not to scare away the wild parakeets feeding on my balcony. The multiple dimensions of this experience are reminiscent of a Japanese tea ceremony.

Andrew Juniper, in his book on wabi-sabi,  the Japanese art of impermanence, describes the state of mindfulness that this ancient ceremony brings you to, through the perfect balance of people, nature, art, the poetic movements of the tea master… to the consummation of the tea itself.

“Here is the heaven and oblivion sought on earth. The jealous intellect that guards our every thought and action relinquishes its vice-like grip and allows us to taste the reality of the present, the infinite, the wondrous and awesome world we all left in our early childhood.”

You don’t achieve that state by pouring boiling water from an electric kettle onto a paper bag full of tea dust that cost half of 1p, knowing that the people who grew it are undernourished, poisoned by the chemicals they’re spraying and living on food handouts in leaking houses with overflowing cesspits.

You might get it in a Brew tea pub, sipping whole leaf tea grown on a small tea garden whose owner Alex knows by name, brewed to perfection and then transferred to a new pot so it stays the perfect strength to the last cup, served to you by someone being given a second chance in life, in the warm, convivial atmosphere of a traditional British pub.

And that’s priceless.

Thank you, Emma, for the pricing insight; Philippa, for the lovely  tea-pot and cup; and Rory, for the wabi-sabi revelation.

 

The ‘national living wage’, modern slavery reporting and women workers contesting India’s local elections- genuine change or April Fool’s jokes?

Photo: Matt Brown. Creative Commons License.
Photo: Matt Brown. Creative Commons License. * http://bit.ly/1REU7je

April 1st 2016 will herald a number of new beginnings. Are these serious changes for the better or just April’s Fool jokes?

To test it out, let’s create a hypothetical business; let’s call it Ye Olde Tea Shoppe in London, owned by April and employing four workers on minimum wage. Bill (25) and Bob (24) are the waiters. Mary (19) is an apprentice learning to operate the new-fangled tea urn and Tim (17) clears the tables and washes up.

April’s first new beginning: the UK’s ‘national living wage’ comes into effect

April gathers her staff and announces (through gritted teeth) “Great news. From today, I have to pay the ‘national living wage’ to everyone who’s eligible!” “Hoorah!” cry Bill, Bob, Mary and Tim, “at last we’ll have enough to live on! No more debt, no more second and third jobs!” April hands out slips explaining how much each is going to be paid from now on.

Bill (25)’s grin fades; “But its it’s only going up from £6.70 to £7.20 an hour – that’s not the living wage,” he cries. “The Living Wage Foundation has calculated that we need £9.40 – plus benefits – to live on in London!”

“But I never said I’d be paying you a living wage,” says April, “I said ‘national living wage’ which is a completely different beast. It’s set by the government without any consultation with the Living Wage Foundation.”

Bill’s demand to know why it’s called the national living wage in that case, is drowned out by a cry from Bob (24). “£7.20? But Bill and I do exactly the same job and I’m still only getting £6.70 – it’s a mistake, right?”

“No, dear,” says April, “the ‘national living wage’ only applies to people over 25. Sorry!”

“So I suppose that means l’m still going to be paid only £5.30?” grumbles Tim (17).

“And I’ll keep getting £3.30 even though I’m two years older than Tim because it’s the first year of my apprenticeship?” says Mary (19)  glumly.

“That’s right,” says April, “the rest of you stay on the old minimum wage rates. But as my total salary budget is going up by 50p an hour, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you all to hand over your tips. After all, if I go out of business, you’ll all be out of a job.”

“It’s an April Fool joke, isn’t it?” says Bill, to hollow laughter all round.

 

April’s second new beginning: the modern slavery act reporting requirements come into effect

The company that supplies tea to Ye Olde Tea Shoppe has a turnover of over £36 million, so it will now have to “produce a statement setting out the steps they have taken to ensure there is no modern slavery in their own business and their supply chains” to comply with the Modern Slavery Act.

The company buys its tea from another company that buys from tea auctions in India. That tea may have been grown by one of several different companies that own tea plantations all over India, or it may have been grown by individual or cooperatives of smallholders… there’s no way of telling because it all gets mixed up in the factory and at the auction house.

Amid the labyrinthine complexities of tea company ownership and influence, where suppliers may own brands and workers may appear to own shares yet remain on appallingly poor wages in shockingly bad housing, it has been suggested that companies could be colluding to ensure that auction prices are kept low… so regardless of where the tea may have been grown, the money available to pay workers is severely restricted.

Those workers are the descendants of bonded and indentured labourers who were brought to isolated tea plantations a hundred years ago. Now as then, the plantation owners provide them with housing, education, healthcare, even food rations – so they are heavily dependent on their employers. Some would call this arrangement generous company perks, others would equate it with slavery – or something very closely akin to it.

How will Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’s supplier ever manage to navigate that labyrinthine supply chain to find out what’s going on within it, let alone ” ensure there is no modern slavery” in it? Yet the statement the company provides to comply with the Modern Slavery Act will need to say more than “Sorry, it was just too hard to find out”. It will need to be truly diligent in its due diligence and find out exactly where its tea comes from. It will need to exert every ounce of its influence and insist that those it buys from don’t suppress prices so that workers’ wages and conditions get squeezed. And it will need to find ways of listening to workers themselves to find out if what they are experiencing is akin to modern slavery.

April Fool joke? Possibly. Time will tell.

 

The third new beginning: Members of a new trade union for women tea workers in Kerala, stand for local elections

Ok, I’m cheating a little on this one. The beginning is not strictly on April 1st. The process began in September last year when women who pluck the tea that ends up in Mary’s Ye Olde Tea Shoppe new-fangled urn, rose up in protest. They were protesting against their bonus being slashed, against the low wages that made them so dependent on that bonus, against their poor housing, dangerous working conditions and the failure of politicians and trade unions to prevent these abuses of their rights as workers. The women who led that uprising were Gomathi Augustin, Indrani Manikandan and Lissy Sunny. They formed Pembilla Orumai – women’s unity – but weren’t initially allowed to participate in wage negotiations as it was not yet formally constituted as a trade union. Without them at the negotiating table, they were awarded a small pay increase on condition that they pluck more tea and a promise to look at a further increase and their other demands after the elections.

Gomathi (38), Indrani (36) and Lissy (47) can now earn Rs 301 a day – about £3 (ie 30p less than apprentice Mary, the lowest paid employee at Ye Olde Tea Shoppe, earns in an hour). They are asking for Rs 500 (about £5) a day.

Their members have already won a handful of seats in village level government, and in April they start contesting further seats. If they win, as their sisters won last year, their grass roots movement will have been legitimised, despite the alleged efforts of established trade union supporters to discredit, destabilise and destroy the movement. They will be formally empowered to support their fellow female workers in defending their rights to decent pay and working and living conditions.

April Fool joke? If so, the joke is on those who thought they could exploit women workers and get away with it.

*NB the photo is used purely for illustrative purposes to give a generic picture of an English tea room. The words of the blog are not connected in any way to the establishment featured in the photo.

The Ascent of Munnar’s Women

Womens march
1. “Women’s March on Versailles” by Unknown – Bibliothèque nationale de France. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons 2. Women workers joining Pengal Otrumai march 7/09/15. Photo: Sabita Banerji

…re-posting for International Women’s Day 2016

A tea plucker once came to her manager and said, “I have now turned into a man, so I should be paid at the higher rate.” A medical examination confirmed that this miraculous transformation had indeed taken place and the higher rate of pay was duly approved. Mesmerised by the spontaneous sex change aspect of this story that I’d heard in my childhood in Munnar, South India, it never occurred to me at the time to question why the male rate of pay should automatically be higher.

A few weeks ago, revisiting Munnar, I did start to question it as I witnessed the birth of a women workers’ “rebellion” against low pay, poor living and working conditions and the male dominated management, politics and trade unions that keep them that way. It has been dubbed ‘Pengal Otrumai’ (Unity of Women). Coincidentally, around the same time, the BBC was screening an episode of its ‘The Ascent of Woman’ documentary series entitled ‘Revolution’, beginning with a reminder that it was the 1789 women’s march on Versaille that triggered the French revolution.

“I want to look at the women who were central to the revolutions that shaped the modern world.” Dr Amanda Foreman starts the programme by saying. “Courageous, visionary figures who fought for change and challenged the status quo.” The courageous figures who are central to Pengal Otrumai are Gomathi Augustine, Lisy Sunny and Indrani Manikandan. When they are not organising thousands of women workers to stage a sit-in outside management offices, or chasing trade union officials and politicians away from their protest or negotiating for better pay and living conditions, they are plucking tea. Contrary to the impression given by the smiling faces of colourfully clad tea pluckers on your pack of 80 tea-bags, tea plucking is an arduous and dangerous job.  Gomathi pointed out to a reporter from Mathrubhumi the steep hills the workers have to climb to pluck the tea “We make the up and down journey carrying 75-100 kg of leaves. On the way we confront elephants sometime. A minor slip from the heights can cost you your life.”

The slashing of their 20% festival bonus to 10% was the last straw. She and her fellow tea pluckers staged an historic 9-day sit-in outside the head office of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation company (KDHP). They drove away men, trade unions and politicians, claiming the stage entirely for themselves. Their bonus demand was finally agreed and a promise made for the Plantation Labour Committee (PLC) to discuss a pay rise. The tripartite wage negotiations that should take place every three years were already nine months overdue.

Dr Foreman believes that “a revolution is going to take place around women, their equality, their participation…” But this does not yet appear to be the case in South India, because when the wage negotiations took place on Saturday, the women were excluded as they were not PLC members. Ironically, the trade union officials whom they had explicitly driven away from the protest were, and it was they, not the women who had prompted the negotiations, who took part in it. Hopefully this does not presage for Pengal Otrumai the fate Dr Foreman observed for many women revolutionaries, that “revolutions all too often are about exchanging one power dynamic for another leaving women betrayed and excluded from the new societies they had helped to create.” The PLC negotiations failed to reach a conclusion, so perhaps they will relent on the basis that fresh (female?) blood may break the ancient stalemate between management and trade unions.

KDHP is, understandably, worried that a 100%+ increase in labour costs in a labour intensive industry already struggling with falling prices will destroy it. But without these women there would be no tea industry at all. Again there are parallels with Foreman’s documentary citing the Russian revolutionary conviction that “women’s participation in the workforce makes the country more prosperous.”  The tea industry has relied on the willingness of these women to work for low wages from the very beginning; the British pioneers of the Kerala plantations, unable to persuade local people to work for the wages they were offering, brought in impoverished dalit labourers from neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Was it just the alleged dexterousness of the women in plucking two leaves and a bud, that made them so ideal for the job, or was it also the fact that women were less likely to object to poverty wages for piteously hard work? But as the events of September 2015 showed, today’s more educated and socially networked generation is very likely to object.

Pengal Otrumai has triggered much soul-searching among politicians. Kerala’s Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy observed that “Successive governments failed to catch the lapses of the management [in observing laws on the humane treatment of workers].” He went on to confess that “All those who had power, are equally responsible for the events that unfolded at Munnar.”  Trade unions too, have been forced to examine their consciences. According to The Hindu, “Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) State president R. Chandrasekharan described the events in Munnar as “a clear failure on the part of the local trade union leadership…” and has sought an urgent meeting of all INTUC-affiliates in the plantation sector to discuss the issue.

Only the KDHP remains unrepentant, in a hurt and bewildered kind of way. In a statement on their Facebook page they plaintively repeat their pride in the worker-shareholder and participatory management system, how well they treat their workers and bemoan the huge financial losses the strike is causing them. Having recently received a glowing response from its workers’ satisfaction survey, and being held up globally as a shining example of ethical management, this must indeed have come as a shock to them. Elsewhere, they cite the fact that Munnar tea workers’ wages are among the highest in the sector. But as Justin Rowlatt’s recent BBC expose on conditions on Assamese tea plantations shows, this is not saying much. Plus, workers’ rights are not about how much better or worse off someone else is, they are about decency and fairness. They continue to believe that the strike was stirred up by outsiders, ‘militant elements’, despite the overwhelming evidence that the women drove away all outsiders – even their own husbands – from the protest.

Dr Foreman concludes her documentary saying “I believe that the future depends on the inclusion of women and to do this we have to break from the past and create a new model for social revolution.”  KDHP made a valiant step in this direction in 2005 when it enabled its workers to become shareholders, but now it needs to ask itself if those changes were truly radical and genuine or if they were just a public relations-friendly mask for the continuation of an old system that effectively keeps workers, particularly women, doing the maximum amount of work for the minimum reward and with the minimum voice?

Now that Munnar’s women have descended their treacherous hillsides and ascended the civil rights platform to make their voices heard, KDHP, and the Indian tea industry in general, would be wise to take heed. It would be wise to treat this as a wake-up call, to make a clean break from its own feudal and colonial past and remould itself in a new business model that ensures a decent living for all its workers, especially the women on whom it relies so heavily.

The views in this blog are the personal views of Sabita Banerji and do not reflect the views or policies of the Ethical Trading Initiative.

Those Lush Tea Estates Are Hiding Death and Despair

munnar1
File picture of Munnar tea estates. Credit: Nikolas Becker, Wikipedia Commons

Even as reports of starvation deaths on defunct tea estates in West Bengal keep coming in, observers are beginning to ask one crucial question—is it the end of the tea industry? And if so, can anything be done to save it and more importantly, save the millions of workers that depend on it for their livelihoods?

Read the full article in thewire.in

Breaking the system keeping tea workers poor

Tea pickers in Wayanad, India. Steenbergs under a Creative Commons Licence - See more at: http://newint.org/blog/2016/02/08/keeping-tea-plantation-workers-poor/#sthash.bNiHbcWa.dpuf
Tea pickers in Wayanad, India. Steenbergs under a Creative Commons Licence

Last September, the BBC revealed appalling conditions on Assamese tea plantations (which supply, among others, London’s Fortnum and Mason) – overflowing cesspits, leaking roofs, child labour, pesticide poisoning and severely malnourished children.

But this was not exactly news.

There have been numerous similar reports over the past decades. In 2014, the Guardian reported on ‘Assam’s modern slaves’, claiming poverty wages were the cause of plantation workers’ children being trafficked into sexual or domestic slavery.

What is keeping the colonial system in tact… and can a small group of women break it?

Read more in my guest blog for the New Internationalist

 

Maintaining the delicate, dynamic balance of power between people and profit

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Scales of Justice – Frankfurt Version by Michael Coghlan 

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint,” said Brazilian Archbishop Hélder Pessoa Câmara. “When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

So forgive me if I sound a tad communist in this blog.

Because the “why” almost always comes down to a matter of power, doesn’t it? That delicate balance of power between employers and employees, the dynamic tension between the drive for shareholders to make a profit and the need for workers to earn a living…

The last century’s most influential, Nobel Prize winning economist, Milton Friedman said: “a corporation’s responsibility is to make as much money for the stockholders as possible.”

I realise it is presumptuous for a mere A level economist to contradict a Nobel Prize winner, but that doesn’t sound very fair to me. There’s an awful lot of people slogging away throughout the supply chain to make the corporation its money – why should just the stockholders (shareholders) get most of the loot? Sure, maybe they should get a bit extra for taking the financial risk, but “as much money as possible…”?

I’d like to put it to the playground test. Children have a powerful sense of fairness. Imagine a group of kids setting out to collect sweets for Halloween. How would it go down if some big kids who provided the costumes decreed that the whole purpose of the exercise was to collect the maximum amount of sweets for them and that the rest – who would be doing the actual collecting – would get just one sweet each? Wouldn’t go down too well, I’d imagine. And there’s a name for kids who make decrees like that.

Friedman did add the caveat to his maximum-money-for-stockholders pronouncement; “so long as it stays within the rules of the game”. But lots of clever business people have found that those rules can be awfully bendy. And that there are an awful lot of shadowy places where rules don’t quite apply…

For example, looked at unemotionally and objectively, slavery is the most effective employment model for maximising shareholder profit. But, of course, slavery is no more morally acceptable than Jonathan Swift’s highly cost-effective “Modest Proposal” of selling off poor Irish children as meat for the dining tables of the rich. So on the whole, we don’t do it. And yet it persists. (Slavery, that is, not eating Irish children). Lurking down there in the distant reaches of the supply chain. Bendy rules. Shadowy places…

But even if you are lucky enough not to be a slave, being an employee, especially an unskilled worker in a country with a large and generally poor population, puts you immediately at a disadvantage on the balance of power scales. The fact that you can be replaced at the drop of a hat seriously limits your leverage against the temptations of those in power to squeeze you for just that little bit more…

That’s why the right to form or join trade unions – and for those unions to be able function effectively – is so crucial. 

Britain was the birthplace of trade unionism. The right to bargain collectively – for workers to negotiate jointly as a workforce with their employer – was born out of the choking, grinding engine of Britain’s industrial revolution – and spread around the world.

Yet the current British government is continuing the process, begun by Margaret Thatcher, of destroying the power and influence of the trade unions.

Thatcher’s rise to power, according to the BBC, “coincided with a spreading belief that union power was getting out of hand.”  And the one thing that the powers that be fear more than anything is the counterpower that trade unions provide. But it’s one thing to rebalance the scales of power -it’s quite another to keep kicking a man when he is down. To destroy his power altogether. That’s just not cricket.

The Trade Union Bill currently working its way through the corridors of power is described by human rights campaigners such as Liberty as a “major attack on civil liberties”.  The bill proposes fines of up to £20,000 for breaking rules on Tweeting and wearing armbands – it’s “little” things like that that chip away at power.

A lot of that choking and grinding that went on during the industrial revolution was by workers – like the young Sheffield steel workers coughing with a sound “as if air were driven through a wooden tube” from “Grinder’s disease”. (The same symptoms are familiar to many workers today, like those in Rajasthan’s sandstone quarries producing the world’s paving stones. Nowadays we call it silicosis.) Deprived of the right to organise, these workers resorted to violence.

The same has been known to happen in the tea plantations of India where workers who have been exploited and suppressed for generations are then deprived of their wages for months – with no outlet for their rage and frustration they have been known to boil over and kill their manager.  Sometimes even when trade unions do exist but cease to genuinely represent workers they will rise up, like Munnar’s women did.

So the powers that be should be wary of pushing too hard to deprive workers of their right to organise and to strike. Because grievance against injustice will always find a way to make itself heard. It could sound like the gentle hissing of a well oiled steam engine where the opposing powers are equally balanced. Or it can sound like the violent explosion that happens when pressure has no other outlet.

But the driving power behind enabling workers to negotiate collectively should not be fear of violence. It should be the fact that not to do is just isn’t cricket. 

Scales symbolise the balance of power, but they also symbolise justice.

That’s why I signed the TUC’s petition to protect the right to strike