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

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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

 

From puny schoolgirls to protesting tea pluckers – proof that transformation is possible

When I first arrived in England, a small, shy, 12-year-old, fresh from the tea plantations of Assam, I was taken under the wing of a small, shy, pale kid with mousy hair. She taught me how to survive in the large, rowdy comprehensive school and we became inseparable.

But despite our close friendship, we lost touch when our families both moved away from the area. Then along came the internet and Friends Reunited. After a gap of about 20 years, to my great joy, I found her again.

But I almost didn’t recognise her. That small, shy, pale kid had transformed herself into a strong, self-assured and razor smart woman. And I mean really strong. She had become a body builder and a champion dead-lifter, as well as a mother and a trainer of personal trainers.

Particularly surprising considering we were both rather puny at school and hated PE. We even skived it once, then lost our nerve and tried to sneak back in, only to get caught in the act. So much more humiliating than being caught actually skiving…

And she even had a new name to go with her new body – Crow Dillon-Parkin.

Since the renewal of our friendship, she has transformed herself again. This time into a conceptual artist, tackling issues of gender and  body image. She read my blog about the uprising of Munnar’s women just as she was preparing for an exhibition in a former tea warehouse, now an art gallery but imminently facing a further transformation of its own, into luxury flats and offices.

Crow, dressed from head to toe in raven black, except for her cropped, platinum blonde hair, showed me round the exhibits. A collection of inherited kitsch tea towels, building bricks caked in dried tea leaves, tea stained “tea”-shirts, delicately embroidered trade winds – white on white, a photo of a tea-cosy bleeding real wool out of its frame and down the wall…

Then we came to Crow’s  piece. She had called it Unity of Women after the Munnar women’s movement, ‘Pembila Orumai’.

A homely tea-tray bearing a stainless steel tea-pot and a recently used tea strainer on a cup and saucer. That was it. It all looked perfectly ordinary and utterly mundane.

Somewhat perplexed, I asked Crow to explain it to me.

“Well, look more closely…” she challenged me. I peered again. And suddenly I saw it. The golden-brown “tea leaves” in the strainer were actually miniscule figures of broken women’s bodies.

The piece, with devastating eloquence, sums up the stark truth behind your cuppa. It has become such a mundane and cosy part of our lives that it is only when we are challenged to look more closely that we can see the reality of what it’s doing to the women who produce it. Their bodies are being strained and broken; their legs are scratched and bleeding from the rough bushes and from leeches. Carrying the heavy loads through steep hill paths injures their backs and knees and causes high rates of uterine prolapse. In parts of India, they suffer from malnutrition and pesticide poisoning… yet their trade unions, government and employers have agreed they should be paid less than the national minimum wage for other agricultural labourers.

It doesn’t have to be like this. If we told our supermarkets and our favourite tea brands that we don’t want our tea so cheap that women’s bodies have to be broken to produce it, they could challenge the way that tea prices are set so that there’s more for the workers. Seriously. Write to them. Speak up at their AGM. They can add their voices to those of local organisations calling for the improvement of pay and conditions on Indian tea plantations. They can support the creation of trade unions that genuinely represent the workers, so that they can negotiate for safe working conditions, decent accommodation and a living wage.

Then maybe there will come a time when the once powerless women who produce our tea can say, like Crow when she became the World Champion Deadlifter in her category, “I am the strongest I have ever been…”

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Detail from ‘Unity of Women’ – an installation by Crow Dillon-Parkin

For Britain, sorry seems to be the hardest word

22940589530_faaf663bec_kOn a chair opposite the Japanese Embassy in Seol, South Korea sits a statue. A life-sized figure of a young woman symbolizing the innocence that was violated by Japan when it forced 200,000 women from Korea and beyond to become sex slaves for their soldiers during WWII.

Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has just offered his “most sincere apologies” on behalf of his country and agreed to pay into a fund to support the survivors of the atrocity. He is now hoping that the statue – a source of great embarrassment to his country – will be removed.

Meanwhile, the British establishment is huffing and puffing at student calls for the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statue from Oriel College, Oxford, on the grounds that it perpetuates a colonialist, Eurocentric view of the world. Or, to use the words of a Radio 4 Any Questions listener, because he was a “vicious, exploitative racist”.

Should countries apologise and pay reparations for the sins of their forebears like Japan has just done? Or should they shrug and leave tributes to their Empire-makers standing as proud testaments to their history, warts and all?

While Any Questions panellist Bernard Jenkins said if we start taking down statues of unpleasant people from our history “where will it end?!”, Labour MP, Kate Hoey, dismissed the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, calling the University “pathetic” for seriously considering the students’ calls. “I was a student demonstrator over apartheid,” she said,  “I was involved in all sorts of sit-ins… and when I look back I wonder what on earth we sat in for because I don’t think we actually got anything.” More troubling than the apparent shallowness of her convictions that this comment reveals, is the brushing over of the important role that international support did play in ending apartheid.

There are worse legacies of the British Empire than statues. The tea plantations of the Indian sub-continent, for example, where historic hierarchies and exploitative practices have been preserved and hardened. While statues may cause offence, these tea plantations continue to cause suffering to living human beings by paying poverty wages – lower than the national minimum wage – and providing substandard benefits for hard and dangerous physical work.

Despite Cecil Rhodes’ contention that “we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race,” there is no escaping the fact that economic exploitation was in fact the Empire’s primary aim, with the betterment of the human race as a nice bonus thrown in. Brits may or may not have done their exploiting in a more gentlemanly manner than other colonisers, but exploit they did. As Ken Livingstone, then Mayor of London, said when he apologised for London’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, “You can look across [towards the financial district] to see the institutions that still have the benefit of the wealth they created from slavery”. And every time we buy a cheap pack of tea bags we are benefiting from the exploitation of tea workers.

So let us by all means debate whether the statues of vicious, exploitative racist Empire builders should remain standing, but in the meantime, let us call for the dismantling of the living monuments to human exploitation our forebears set up in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

And once it has ended, let us have the courage and decency to apologise for it, as Japan has done for the exploitation of those Korean women. Or like the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, did when he expressed “sincere regret” for the British torture and abuse of Kenyans in the 1950s. Or as Kevin Rudd, then Prime Minister of Australia did in 2008 for the “profound grief, suffering and loss” it had inflicted on Australia’s aboriginal people, or then Prime Minister Stephen Harper did in the same year to Canada’s aboriginal peoples for the abuses they suffered at the residential schools they were forced to attend.

Ken Livingstone ended his speech with the words “Slavery was not abolished as an act of good will by the slave owners, it was defeated by the resistance of the slaves.” The resistance of India’s tea plantation workers is in its infancy and needs our support. If student protests played even the smallest role in helping to end apartheid, perhaps they – and the rest of us – can also play a part in helping to end the continued exploitation of millions of tea plantation workers.