The cup that doesn’t cheer tea workers

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It continues: “As per the meeting convened by the Chief Minister, the Ministers for Labour and Power on 13.9.2015, and considering the peculiar circumstances and on the insistence of the Government of Kerala, with great difficulty, the company agreed to pay 10 percent more towards ex-gratia which is to be disbursed on 21.9.2015. However, it is noticed that the workers are still resorting to go-slow, which is severely affecting the company’s functioning.”
The strike, while it was on, was remarkable in many ways. Women workers repeatedly said they have no faith in their men or in politicians. The ‘leaders’ who came to offer support were chased away. Even women politicians were persona non grata.
“Where were all these people till now? We have been living a dog’s life for the past several years — no one showed any interest in us. Moreover, the trade union leaders who were pretending to save us were actually betraying us by taking huge amounts from the company,” said Jailakshmi.
She complained that trade unions active in the area like AITUC, INTUC and CITU were not responsive to their needs. The protestors went so far as to publish, on the seventh day of the strike, a list of trade union leaders who allegedly cheated them in the recent past. They allege that these leaders are getting cash and facilities for protecting the company’s interests. They suspect that around 64 well-furnished houses were given by the company to these people as quid pro quo.
“We have spurned the trade unions and driven away our men after we found that these two had not done anything to improve our living condition all these years,” says Usha Thyagarajan, 38 years and a mother of two. She came to Munnar after marriage 10 years ago. “I regret that decision. I eloped for a better life. But what awaited me here was relentless agony and poverty,” she says.
According to her, workers are paid a basic salary of Rs 82.63 per day after toiling around 12 hours a day. After adding allowances, they take home a wage of Rs 232 per day. If they are late for work, they are turned back. If they take leave due to illness or other emergencies, hourly deductions are made.
“We get only Rs 199 for the 21 kg of tea leaves that we pluck per day, plus 40 paisa for every additional kilo. Whereas our kankani (supervisors), management assistants and even managers get 1-10 for every additional kilo we pluck. Is such a system fair?” she asks.
There are other anomalies. The company deducts Rs 750 every month for the 75 kg rice given to each family. With all the allowances slashed, an average tea plucker takes home Rs  2,000-3,000 per month. They are not given adequate medical facilities, which are mandated by the labour agreement with the company; they also pay Rs 200 per year as union fund. The single-room tenements allotted by the company date back to the 1920s, most being in a dilapidated state.
Perhaps now, emboldened by their success on the bonus issue, they will summon up the courage to fight for better living and working conditions.
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A STRIKE WITH A DIFFERENCE

The Munnar strike was unprecedented in scale and for the woman power it exuded. The women created history by shunning politicians and trade unions; not many strikes win this level of attention and success without a leader. What was also remarkable, according to Patrick Wager — a local journalist who has reported on the region for the last two decades — is that the whole of Munnar supported the strike.
Even police officers were indulgent and supported the workers, quite an unusual development. Tourists, auto drivers and local businesses extended support by donating small amounts to purchase food and water for the striking women.
Sasikumar, a plantation worker, says that there were many efforts on the part of the company to sabotage the strike through infiltration. The police arrested a woman after the protestors complained that she was trying to play on the emotions of Tamil workers through incendiary speeches.
There were also a couple of incidents of outsiders trying to divide the strikers. These attempts were nipped in the bud by protesters themselves. “The success of the protest came as a result of the perseverance and endurance shown by our women”, Sasikumar says.
Local media termed the strike as a unique one in the history of the state for its women-only character. The admirable energy shown for so many days inspired Kerala’s labour minister Shibu Baby John to term it a ‘Jasmine Revolution’.
Sugathakumari, poet and social activist, says that the strike wrote a new chapter in the history of trade union movements in the state. The women showed the world that no leader is needed to make a protest successful — democracy at its best.
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