The real meaning of the ‘fairer’ sex?

Leaders of the Munnar women tea workers strike. Photo: Aravind Bala in Onmanorama
Gomathi Augustine, Lisy Sunny and Indrani Manikandan; leaders of the Munnar women tea workers strike. Photo: Aravind Bala in Onmanorama


A recent interview with the chairman of the UK’s Living Wage Foundation and witnessing the birth of Kerala’s Pengal Otrumai (Unity of Women) got me thinking…

The UK Conservative government’s recent (mis)appropriation of the term ‘living wage’ is the sincerest form of flattery. Its increased minimum wage level for over 25’s may not be an actual living wage, but the fact that it has seen fit to ‘borrow’ the term shows its recognition of the power of those words. There are now over 1,400 accredited Living Wage employers in the UK, and the number keeps rising. From boutique real ale breweries to – most recently – retail giants like Lidl, employers across the country are realising the moral, reputational and/or economic sense of paying their workers enough to live on.

So what political powerhouse is behind this radical transformation process?

The answer is there isn’t one.

Although the last Labour government introduced the minimum wage (to alarmist predictions of mass unemployment which never materialised), it is the Living Wage campaign of the East London Community Organisation (now London Citizens) that has persuaded employers voluntarily to pay way above that level to ensure people can earn enough in a standard week (ie without overtime) to support themselves and their families to a decent standard of living. It is the politicians who are following in the footsteps of civil society.

The movement began at the grass roots of British society when a group of East London parents, faith leaders, trade unionists and workers who were struggling to make ends meet despite working two or three jobs staged a peaceful protest outside the Barclays Bank head office. They offered cake to passers-by– perhaps to make a point about the way the ‘cake’ is divided in the economy, or perhaps simply because cake is a nice friendly way to introduce yourself to people and to sweeten the conversation.

Is a similar revolution now starting in the hills of South India? Two weeks ago I witnessed the birth of an unprecedented protest by thousands of women tea plantation workers voicing their disgust at a recent bonus cut, low wages and poor living conditions.  The Indian press is referring to it as a “rebellion”. If rebellion is defined as “behaviours aimed at destroying or taking over the position of an established authority…” then the term is an appropriate one. Because the protesters weren’t just saying we want better pay and conditions, they were also challenging the “established authority” of men.

As Amrith Lal says in the Indian Express “The women were discovering agency and identifying trade unions as a male preserve…” Their message (to paraphrase various interviews) was ‘men do not represent us, (male dominated) trade unions do not represent us, (male dominated) politicians do not represent us. We represent ourselves. We do the hard work of plucking the tea and carrying 50kg sacks on our backs. We also do the majority of the domestic work in the tiny two room huts provided by the company. The men just spray pesticides on the tea bushes and drive the lorries (for the same pay). So stay away all of you. This is OUR rebellion.’

And the power of the ‘Pengal Otrumai’ (Unity of Women), as they call themselves, is spreading. Other women tea workers have since come out on strike and women working for peanuts in the shrimp peeling sheds of Kerala have also staged a protest, saying “We have no faith in trade unions. We are inspired by the success of the Munnar women’s agitation because we too are fighting for our livelihood.”

In a recent interview, Living Wage Foundation chairman, Neil Jameson, says that during his time as a social worker; “We looked at many of the people that we looked after and they had two things in common: they were poor, and they had no power”. Such is the condition of almost half of humanity; the women toiling as domestic servants, sex workers, homeworkers, or as workers in flower farms, fruit orchards, salad farms, shrimp peeling sheds and not least in the millions of garment factories that have sprung up in so many developing countries generating billions of dollars’ trade. In addition to the powerlessness that comes with poverty (and the poverty that comes with powerlessness), they are further handicapped by social norms which place women firmly below the status of men.

Eighty per cent of workers in the Bangladeshi garment sector, which is the driving force of the country’s economy, are women. Yet last week a Bangladeshi described his country to me as “woman-hostile”. None but the bravest of women dare aspire to becoming supervisors because of the burden of domestic responsibilities weighing them down, because they know women are not supposed to be in charge (despite the country having a powerful woman prime minister). Especially since the horror of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse killing over 1,100 mostly women workers – and prompted by the global outcry it elicited – Western brands have been making efforts to improve working conditions in their supply chains. Yet women workers themselves continue to remain powerless and poor. Gargantuan garment factories, glittering five star hotels and the office blocks of factory owners tower above their one-story huts.

Jameson says: “There are three important sectors: one is the state, one is the market, and one is civil society. Civil society is the weakest, the most fractured, the most misunderstood; yet it is, of course, the most important because it is where millions reside, and it is the place where people develop children. It is where families lie” He describes civil society assemblies as “the political tool for non-partisan people to show their power”. This is a perfect description of the Pembila Orumai protests. The women of Munnar literally chased away politicians who turned up to support (or appropriate) their protest. They threw stones at trade union offices. And while their menfolk, laughing like children, threw armfuls of green tea leaves as passing traffic, they sat for nine days in a solemn ‘dharna’ outside the Headquarters Office of KDHP, the company of which they are supposed to be shareholders and management participants.

Their actions say loud and clear that they feel let down by those who claim to (and perhaps genuinely believe that they) represent them and have their best interests at heart. The management, unions and politicians have, whether intentionally or not, ensured through their systems, negotiations and social norms that the women their industry thrives off receive as little as possible in return.

The women workers of Munnar’s tea plantations have spoken. How much longer will the women garment workers of Bangladesh (and China and Vietnam and India and Cambodia) stay silent? How much longer will they tolerate their pathetic wages, their long working hours, the bullying and sexual harassment that come with their jobs? How long will they accept being lorded over by male supervisors, male trade unionists, male politicians and by their husbands, uncles, brothers and fathers?  Could the Pembilla Orumai rebellion spread to the garment sector and all the other sectors which rely on women’s labour and women’s silence to generate vast profits? Could these women, quietly and with cake like the East London community or with noisy dignity like the women of Munnar, rise up from the grass roots and achieve what politicians, trade unions, NGOs and CSR programmes have so far failed to achieve; a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work for everyone? If so, it would bring a whole new meaning to the term ‘the fairer sex’.

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.


3 thoughts on “The real meaning of the ‘fairer’ sex?

  1. isith gangooly September 25, 2015 / 1:08 pm

    Well Written; and about time too — women in India and the rest of Asia most definitely get a raw deal so any rebellion needs to be listened to; wish them every success.

  2. Sabita Banerji September 27, 2015 / 7:07 am

    Thanks, Isith. I wholeheartedly agree.
    Thanks, too, to Leena Manimekalai for clarifying the difference between ‘Pembila Orumai’ the phrase the Malayaali press has been using for Unity of Women and ‘Pengal Otrumai’ the more correct and respectful way of phrasing it in Tamil. I have updated the blog accordingly.

    • Sabita Banerji March 26, 2019 / 1:47 pm

      Update: I have recently met one of the leaders of the movement, who unequivocally calls it Pempila Orumai. This is the name of the trade union they have now formally established.

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