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

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.

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