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?
“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.
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…”
On 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.
On my last visit to India I was given two packets of tea. One kilo bag was sewn into a linen sleeve and contained full bodied, delicately flavoured whole-leaf tea. The moist used leaves swell until they fill almost half the tea-pot, they are thick, black and rich enough to nourish the driest rose bed.
The other packet – somewhat less than a kilo – was wrapped in pages from a Tamil language newspaper. Inside, the open mouth of the plastic bag was carefully taped shut, the partly used tea it contains is a coarse, dark brown powder. Its flavour is fuller and more distinctive than anything you would get from a tea bag, but there is a rough edge to it that the whole leaf tea in the linen sleeve does not have. This tea was made to be boiled with milk and sugar to make strong, earthy chai.
The two teas represent the extremes of the grading process that green leaves go through once they are emptied into the factory’s drying trays.
The whole-leaf tea was given to me by the family of a former tea estate manager who continues to receive it as an annual retirement gift from the company. They generously “re-gifted” it to me knowing that I have a strong feeling for the stuff and for the place it grew.
The powdered tea – or “dust” – was given to me by an employee on the same tea plantation. His family used to work for mine when we lived there. When I visited in September, I had planned to stock up with local tea from the sales outlet on the ground floor of the company headquarters. But when I arrived it was surrounded by police, and soon afterwards by thousands of women tea pluckers protesting at their low wages, poor housing and healthcare and the failure of their trade unions, politicians or managers to stand up for them.
The plantation employee and his wife had invited me to breakfast on the second day of the strike and we were discussing its underlying causes and the likelihood of its success, when I selfishly asked whether they thought there was any way of getting hold of some tea now that the shop was closed (in fact the protestors had made all the shopkeepers and hoteliers close for the duration of the strike).
The next day I was presented with the carefully re-wrapped packet of tea, clearly from their own kitchen shelf. The company sells tea, along with other basic provisions, at a discount to employees.
I invited this old friend and his family to have tea with me at The Club which had been the social hub of our community when I was a child and where I was now staying. But when they arrived, all dressed up and bearing gifts, the club management would not let the family onto the premises. “Because… well, you know why” smirked the manager. So we went out and ate together at a restaurant in town.
The club manager’s position in this hierarchy would be somewhere below tea estate manager but above the plantation employee, who himself is positioned above the tea pluckers.
Later the manager explained that although the striking tea pluckers were technically shareholders in the company which has a participatory management system in place “thinking power is not there” to enable them to truly benefit from it. They are just “lazy” and yes, their work is hard and dangerous, but it is their “duty” to do it and they “should be grateful” for what they get.
But not everywhere in India maintains such strict admission rules as The Club. My whole-leaf tea benefactor told me of her horror when, sitting in an elegant bar in Cochin, a common fisherman in a dhoti had casually walked in and bought himself a drink at the same bar. “Why do you allow these people in?” she asked the barman with genuine pain and distress. “That is the law now,” he said.
And that is really what lies at the heart of the plight of workers on India’s tea plantations today. The strict colonial hierarchy brought in by the British at the end of the 19th century suited the Indian caste and economic class system like a glove. And while Indian law is (very slowly) becoming more egalitarian, plantations are a state-within-a-state still trapped in a sociological time-warp.
The striking women workers, whether they know it or not, are rebelling not only against their low wages and poor living and working conditions, but against a mind-set – embedded for generations – that grades human beings like tea itself, equating one group with “whole-leaf” and another with “dust”.
And as long as those of us who buy Indian tea continue to turn a blind eye to that mind-set and the impact it has on the lives of the workers, we contribute towards perpetuating it.
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.
Guest post by ASHWINI SUKHTANKAR AND PETER ROSENBLUM
Almost four years ago, we first traveled to Rungamuttee, a tea estate in the Dooars, so far north that it nuzzles the Bhutan border. The region has recently fallen prey to the craze of “tea tourism,” and the estates jostle for space with eco-green-homestay lodges that lure middle class families with the opportunity to play at a mythic British sahib-memsahib life, sitting on verandahs sipping tea while gazing out over vast reaches of picturesque monoculture, with rows of squat green bushes as far as the eye can see.
We were not unmoved by the beauty and the weight of history, but we were there to talk to workers and to understand what plantation life meant for them in the 21st century.
At Rungamuttee, we sat perched in red plastic chairs, almost brushing knees with a sinewy old man, also in a red…
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.
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.
The morning started quietly – I was the sole guest in the dimly lit High Range Club dining room. The rain was lashing down outside and mist wreathed the tops of the nearby hilltops. The Club lent me a rainbow coloured umbrella and I decided to walk the mile or so into Munnar over one of its many bridges. A crowd of ladies in colourful saris was streaming across it, shouting jokes back and forth, laughter rippling from the front to the back of the procession. I wondered where they were off to on this Monday morning; clearly not to work in the tea plantations.
My plan was to catch up with my emails in an internet café over a coffee and then meet up with the HR manager of the worker-owned Kanan Devan Hill Production Company Pvt Ltd, which also operated a ‘participatory management’ system which involved workers at every level of the estates. He said he was a bit busy this morning. Last year he’d told me about the “happiness survey” of KDHP which had revealed that the majority of workers rated their employment and lives here as ‘good’ or ‘satisfactory’. This time I hoped he would help me to meet some workers to hear about Munnar’s ground-breaking system from their point of view.
I was surprised to see the KDHP sales outlet on the ground floor of the Head Quarters Office building was closed. Policemen were gathered outside the HQ Office door. A little further on, a crowd of people stood waving black flags on thin bamboo poles. I heard slogans being chanted from another direction, and another crowd of protesters marched in. Over the next hour or so more and more of them poured in from every direction, mostly women, shouting slogans, punching the air, waving their black flags and cardboard placards. I could see why the HR manager might be a tad busy this morning. A man singled me out with my rainbow coloured umbrella and, in the midst of the yelling protesters and ranks of police, asked if I would be interested in an ayurvedic massage. You have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit.
I asked a lady beside me what was going on. With my barely existent Tamil I couldn’t understand much of her answer except the bit about the fact that they were protesting against their low pay and bonuses. I took a photo of someone ripping strips off a large poster of a grinning politician, but I was immediately surrounded by young men saying no photos, unless I wanted to go up to the front with the media. But they did want to tell me about the strike and for me to “Whatsapp” their message to London as they put it. They said workers worked 7-8 hours a day, their work is very hard, they face “elephant, tiger, blood sucking leeches” and only get paid Rs230 (about £2). “Don’t they get money from shares in the company?” I asked. They shrugged. The language barrier was too great to get to the bottom of how workers in a worker-owned company with participatory management could be striking in the first place.
I found a prime position under an awning on the steps of a hotel – along with several policemen and a few other civilian gawkers like me. The street was by now carpeted with tea leaves and crowds of men were beckoning cars, minibuses and auto-rickshaws on towards them, laughing as if challenging them to a game, and then showering them with armfuls of the leaves, stuffing them in through the windows. The drivers and passengers were laughing too (a little more nervously). The unmistakable bouquet of tea that normally wafts up from a pot or freshly roasted from a factory now rose from fresh leaves crushed under tyres, sandals and boots. It was almost a carnival atmosphere – but I couldn’t help thinking that any minute it could all turn nasty. And indeed at one point I did see some men roughly shoving an elderly man in a white dhoti – though luckily nothing more seemed to come of it. Later, another shout went up and a small but vociferous group of BJP supporters carrying orange lotus symbol flags, all dressed in white marched off – strangely in the opposite direction to the main protest.
Suddenly the hotel manager I was chatting with rushed inside and started to close the metal shutters of the hotel – in a flash the policemen all dived inside too. I looked around and realised I was now completely alone on the steps… and although I couldn’t sense any immediate danger from the crowd, I succumbed to the natural human instinct, when all around are losing their heads, to panic. There was still a small gap under the metal shutters – I thought about throwing myself on the ground and rolling in at the last moment like they do in the movies, but opted instead to squat down and shout pathetically through the gap, “Can I come in too, please?” It was opened again enough for me to crawl in.
Inside the hotel lobby, there was a back window with a good view of the bridge behind the Office – now a flood of protesters’ black umbrellas – and glimpses of other parts of the town that twisted around itself with the river. The policemen were laughing at something happening on the bridge – so clearly they had not rushed in to avoid violence and anarchy. They soon trooped out again but the civilians stayed, pointing out where trouble spots were flaring (in the direction that the BJP group had gone) and debating what was going on. One of them repeated to me the explanation about the workers getting only Rs230 a day and working hard under dangerous circumstances. Again I asked about the shares. Again my informant didn’t seem to know much about it. He said that the trouble that was flaring up in the otherwise peaceful protest was because the workers were not happy about the political interference in the strike. He also said that the strike was not organised by any trade union but by workers themselves. In fact, he said that the unions who themselves were affiliated to different political parties- Communist, Congress, BJP etc – were part of the problem, skimming a percentage off the workers’ negotiated salary. The papers today say workers attacked the union offices with stones for “failing to protect the interests of the workers”.
I was getting hungry, but this time virtually every shop, restaurant and hotel’s metal shutter was firmly down. As I queued at the counter of one of the few little shops still open for something to eat, groups of women marched down the street shouting sternly at the shopkeepers to close them too. The atmosphere was starting to feel less carnival-like and I was feeling increasingly conspicuous and vulnerable with my rainbow coloured umbrella.
In the compound of the slightly safer feeling Munnar Post Office raised above street level, I got talking to a man who was equally sympathetic with the workers and also equally mystified by whether or not they get income from their shares. “And it’s the first time the ladies are being activists!” he said, widening his eyes and waggling his head in admiration at their pluck.
Like the others I had spoken to, he said he’d never known a strike like this to be called in Munnar before. But I had. It was in 1968 when I was seven. Then, too, workers had surrounded the Head Quarters Office to demand higher bonuses, only that time my Dad was inside it. And when he and the General Manager tried to leave, the protesters surrounded the car and threw stones at them, the smashed glass of the windows cutting their faces and arms. It could have ended with worse bloodshed than that, but a solitary policeman appeared in the midst of the crowd, bravely swinging his baton. The crowd hesitated long enough for the car to escape.
While I was planning my own “escape” from the increasing intensity building up on the streets, my new friend at the Post Office, who was an hotelier and real estate agent, took the opportunity to try to sell me some land, explaining that good money could be made by building a guest house here. Again, you have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit.
I have no idea how to end this post. I have no wise summing up statements to make that neatly tie up this story because I don’t know what to think or who to believe… where I thought there was hope, there is strife; where I thought I saw clarity there is confusion… I’m still hoping that I will somehow get to the bottom of it, and that when I get there, there will still be a glimmer of hope.
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.