“Pembillai orumai zindabad (Long live women’s union)!”
A woman screamed this slogan, in Tamil, before the office of Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company in Munnar. A couple of thousand women, milling around, echoed her even as mist climbed down the green hill ranges blanketed with tea shrubs: “Pembillai orumai zindabad.” It was an astute twist to a slogan that Malayalees have been familiar with: “Thozhilali aikyam zindabad (Long live workers’ union)!” These women were all labourers —in fog and rain, across 24,000 hectares of hilly region, they shear tea leaves for Kanan Devan—but here they invoked their gender to assert that this is their own fight. They shouted in their language, Tamil, in Kerala’s most famous hill resort:
“Paniyeduppathu naangalu/ kollayeduppathu neengalu (We work / You exploit)
Kolunthukutta edukkathu naangalu/ panakkutta amukkathu neengalu (We carry bags of tea/ You hoard bags of money)
Potta layangal naangalkku/ AC bungalow ungalkku (Old stables for us/ AC bungalows for you)
Tamil medium naangalkku/ English medium ungalkku (Tamil medium for us/ English medium for you)
Chicken, dosa ungalkku/ kaadi kanji naangalkku (Chicken and dosa for you/ stale rice water for us).”
That was the slogan and song that shook Munnar—and the rest of the state—in the beginning of September. One half of it was about the unhappy existence of the worker in the tea estate. The other half was the refrain of the new aspirational labourer who questions her meagre subsistence, who wants English- medium education for her children, who refuses to accept the vast gulf between the haves and the have-nots and forms a collective to redress it. Their demands to that end were specific: Rs 500 as daily wage as opposed to Rs 232, bonus should be 20 per cent instead of the 10 per cent that had been announced earlier, and better medical facilities.
Malayalees, down in the plains, were riveted, even bewildered, as the slogans, fierce and catchy, streamed to them: through newspapers, TV channels and Facebook notifications blinking in their mobile phones. Until now, Munnar was just a touristy tea county where they sought out, with a particular parochial pleasure, Kerala’s own wisp of mist and mountain air after having bussed to Kodaikanal and Ooty in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. In planter’s chairs, Malayalees—and now increasingly north Indians and Arabs—took in the green hills, spotted the Nilgiri Thar, exclaimed at the purple kurinji that blossoms once in 12 years, but they never quite saw these women standing amid rows of tea bushes, cutting the leaves with scissors. They never quite heard a murmur from them—until now. Suddenly, Munnar was not just about pricey resorts and cheaper dormitories, superior spices and silver tips. There were women here who kept the plantations running. They have names. She is Lissie Sunny. She is Gomathy Augustine. She is Velankanni. She is Indrani. She is Bhavani. And a thousand others. They have voices.
They stumped not only the ordinary Malayalee but especially Kerala’s politicians and male trade union leaders. The rebellion began to brew at Kanan Devan Hills Plantations (KDHP) in mid-August when news broke that workers would get only 10 per cent of their pay as bonus as opposed to 19 per cent last year. The reason was that profits had fallen.
Kanan Devan is a well known tea brand in the state. Its jingle once used to be: ‘Kanan Devan—Nature’s blend, Tata’s packing’. Tata Tea Ltd hived off KDHP in 2005. KDHP is mentioned as an associate company in the annual report of Tata Global Beverages Ltd, although the brand is not quite flaunted on the website of the world’s second largest tea company. Tata now holds 28.52 per cent of KDHP’s shares—from 18 per cent in 2005—while the KDHP Welfare Trust holds 8.95 per cent. KDHP occupies 24.3 per cent of the total tea area in Kerala and accounts for 31.5 per cent of the plant’s production in the state.
The annual report of Tata Global Beverages says that ‘for financial year 2014-15, KDHP’s turnover was marginally lower than the previous year. Profits were lower compared to the previous year due to lower realisation in South India and increase in wages reflecting wage revision during the year.’ While total income slid slightly from Rs 286.8 crore in 2013- 14 to Rs 285.90 crore in 2014-15, profit after tax came down from Rs 15.53 crore to Rs 5.03 crore
But the workers would hear none of it. Tea production had gone up from 23.46 million kg to 24.12 million kg in 2014-15, and the loss in bonus was not a reflection of the tea plucker’s productivity: the average kg per man-day was 47.89 in 2014- 15 as opposed to 49.7 the previous year.
The workers who pluck tea leaves are mostly women. On 2 September, on the streets of Munnar, they stopped work and came together to protest against the cut in bonus. They kept out the trade union leaders—the CPI’s All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), which has the biggest presence in the Kanan Devan plantation, the Congress’ Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and the CPM’s Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). This was extraordinary in a state that is the land of trade unions, for better and for worse.
The state president of INTUC R Chandrasekharan was belligerent at the sidelining of the unions by the women. “No struggle can succeed without unions,” he said. AITUC leader CA Kurien told Open: “We are with the workers. The company agreed to give 20 per cent as bonus because of the collective effort of the unions as well.”
Lissy Sunny, 47, who became one of the faces of the pembillai movement, says the women had no patience with the convoluted logic of the trade union leaders: “We were told by the unions that if we strike work, the company might declare a lockout and we would lose out even on next year’s bonus. But we could not agree to that.” She is in her ‘line house’ given by the company—it has two rooms appointed with two plastic chairs and a second- hand television set and even a video player, and asbestos sheets overgrown with weeds as roof. In the house opposite her, a stack of firewood is protected from the unseasonal rain by a big poster of the CPM leader Pinarayi Vijayan.
For now, that is the only presence of politicians in the place.
Lissy says: “Our original plan was to work slowly. If we work really hard, we could pluck 100-200 kg of tea leaves a day. But we decided that if we are being paid only Rs 232 as daily wage, then we will only pluck the minimum of 21 kg required.” There is a peculiar wage system in the tea estate. You will be paid Rs 232 for plucking 21 kg of leaves. For every extra kg up to 60 kg, you will be paid 50 paise per kg and Re 1 for every kg up to 80 kg.
This was the season for plucking leaves—and the workers were testing the management by going slow. “But they sent supervisors into the forest so that we wouldn’t dawdle,” says Lissy, “It was torture. We were like slaves. That is when we decided to stop work and take to the streets.”
The agitation saw the company agreeing to 20 per cent compensation on 13 September: a minimum of 8.33 per cent as bonus and 11.66 per cent as ex gratia.
Now they are waiting for the decision of the Plantation Labour Committee, which will look into the workers’ demand for a revision of wages, on 26 September. “If we don’t get Rs 500 as wages, we will be back in the streets. This time, we will also have our men and children with us. We will cook and sleep and agitate on roads,” says Lissy, who has studied only till Class VIII.
The plantation economy requires companies to provide houses, schools and hospitals for their workforce. The managements often cite this as the reason they cannot increase wages beyond a point as the social security takes a toll on them. This old model came from colonial times when labourers were brought to remote plantations to work—so their housing and medical requirements and their children’s education had to be ideally met by the companies.
Labourers were similarly brought to Munnar from Tamil Nadu to work on the tea plantations. Indrani says six generations of her family have been here and they knew no other work than what they did at the plantation: plucking leaves, pruning bushes, roasting leaves, packing and stitching and stacking the sacks. But the house that Indrani shares with her husband Manikandan is not theirs. They don’t have an address. The address is still his Provident Fund number: PF No 5205, Devikulam Estate.
The way out is to relieve the companies of their social wages. Instead, the government could allot workers land and a house or at least an easy loan to build one. The world around the labourers is fast changing: they see workers who have just come from Assam and West Bengal and Odisha, earning much more than they do, working in shops and resorts. Most of the plantation labourers are sticking to that job because it promises a ‘line house’, a roof over their heads. If the companies are divested of these social responsibilities that were essential in another age and time, but not so now, they will also be more amenable to increasing the wages.
What we call ‘tea estate’, the workers call ‘forest’. And therein lies the huge gap in perceiving that open space where workers are unprotected from the elements. As you travel from Munnar town to Devikulam estate, through a eucalyptus forest, it is a desolate, frigid zone. If you look closely you will see women hunched over the bushes. They wear a sari and a shirt over it. Then they wrap a plastic sheet around them and finally a layer of thick tarpaulin, fastened with a rope or a twine. They have plastic sheets covering their head, shielding them from mist and sun and rain, Most of them have a golden nose pin and toe rings. But the feet are bare, exposed to the mud, the cold and leeches. Only a few could afford shoes.
Indrani has been in the plantation from her mid-teens but she wants mobility for her children. “My kids should have the option of doing something else,” she says. “We choose to work in the estate because otherwise we will be thrown out of this house. My children should have a house of their own. The government should look into that.” Her elder daughter is studying in Class XI, in English medium. “She need not pluck leaves. Maybe she could be an officer.”
The women who now keep the trade union leaders away were ironically tutored by the unions themselves. Before they cut ties, the women were part of one of the three unions. “We were there to shout slogans for them, but when the time came, the leaders did not listen to our demands,” says Indrani. Their slogans are a mixture of what they learnt from the trade unions in the past and the bitter grievances of present. They want more representation of women labourers in the unions, and Kurien says, appropriately for now, that the time has come for it. Otherwise, says Gomathy, “We might have to think of a women’s union.”
Interestingly, every house is divided. While the women are opposing the unions and demanding that their membership fee be returned, their men remain loyal members of trade unions. “We need the trade unions. Whether it is to get a certificate or a ration card, we need the support of the unions. A few leaders may have gone astray and some have been sold out to the company, but the union is essentially good,” says Manikandan.
Meanwhile, in Kerala politics, an old warhorse, the sidelined VS Achuthanandan of the CPM, came into prominence with the Munnar agitation. The women workers had shooed away CPM legislator S Rajendran and were tentative about joining hands with leaders like Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, PK Sreemathi and the Kerala Pradesh Mahila Congress leader Bindu Krishna, but Achuthanandan received a hero’s reception. “The moment VS came, we knew our problems will be resolved,” says Lissy.
But round 2 of their problems will not be so easily resolved. Labour Minister Shibu Baby John had said that giving Rs 500 as daily wages would bring the plantation sector to a standstill. When this statement created a furore, the minister withdrew it. “I was not saying that workers will not be paid Rs 500. Whatever wages can be paid, should be given,” he explained.
Munnar is not the same. Faces that were invisible, names that were never known beyond the hedges of tea bushes are asserting themselves. “For generations, the women were sidelined. But now we are finally coming to the fore.”