The cup that doesn’t cheer tea workers

True grit Women hold a sit-in on a highway in Munnar to demand better benefits
True grit Women hold a sit-in on a highway in Munnar to demand better benefits

Jailakshmi, a 34-year-old tea plantation worker, has a smile on her face when Opposition leader VS Achuthanandan announces that there is a solution for the women workers’ demands. It is 13 September, the ninth day of protests by the 5,000-plus tea pickers working on the plantations of Kanan Devan Hills Plantation Company (KDHP), an associate of Tata Global Beverages Ltd in Munnar.
At this famous hill station in Kerala, women braved the scorching sun and heavy downpours to stage a sit-in protest in front of the company office to highlight their demands. That too without a leader.
Soon after truce is declared around 8.30 pm, the crowd of women is jubilant. Crackers are burnt, male workers lift police officers in big bearhugs. The beaming women workers thank mediapersons and the people of Munnar for standing by them and making the protest a success.
The women’s strike is resolved before it goes into its tenth day, with the state government mediating talks with the KDHP. It is agreed that the workers would get 20 percent bonus. While 8.33 percent of the total would be paid upfront, the other 11.67 percent would be ex gratia. Their demand for a salary hike would be taken up by the Plantation Labour Committee to be convened on 26 September. The amount announced is to be paid to workers on or before 21 September, the chief minister announces after the meeting.
Achuthanadan joined the protestors on Sunday morning, announcing that he will sit with them until a solution is found. It was then that the discussions gathered momentum. In fact, in the first three days, the protesters booed away politicians of both LDF and UDF who came to show solidarity with the strikers.
Jailakshmi tells TEHELKA  she is happy that at last a solution has been found for the dire situation they had been facing for the last few years. “We hope that now our lives will improve. We are thankful for the support of police officers and the media.”
The strike came as a blot on the face of KDHP, claiming to be the largest tea corporation in south India, covering an area of 23,788 hectares in Munnar alone. KDHP owns 70 percent of the tea estates in Munnar and has 11,000 workers on its rolls.
Ironically, in an effort to make the company more worker friendly, Tata Tea had handed over a major share of the company to employees and managers of the estate a decade ago. Though a director is appointed on the board as a workers’ representative, Tata Tea holds 18 percent share. KDHP holds 68 percent of the shares, while a trust and others hold the remaining 14 percent. Tata Global Beverages also retains the Kanan Devan brand.
Despite the best intentions, however, things came to such a pass that women workers, mostly from Tamil Nadu, went on the warpath demanding a salary hike and 20 percent bonus. They blocked the national highway that leads to the hill town. They even debarred men from the venue.
The trade union leaders who are usually an integral part of workers’ strikes were conspicuous by their absence, shooed away after the women workers found they had ‘connived’ with the company to get their bonus slashed from 19 percent last year to 10 percent this year. On top of that, on 5 September, the trade unions had put up a notice asking workers not to go on strike. Groups of women barged into the trade union offices demanding an explanation. None was forthcoming, so they started their sit-in that same evening with less than 50 participants.
When TEHELKA visited Munnar on the sixth day of the agitation, Jailakshmi was among the workers shouting slogans. Her rhythmic, booming voice had spectators wondering where she amassed so much energy. Hundreds repeated the slogans with folded fists punching the air.
“Penpillai orumai zindabad” (Long live women’s unity) “Paniyedupathu naangalu, Kollayadippathu neengalu” (We work and you loot) “Panakkutta ammukkutha ningalu” (We pluck tea leaves and you pilfer our money).
She paused, took a deep breath and resumed the slogans. When this reporter met her after a few hours, she seemed exhausted after standing long hours in the sun. She was reluctant to talk, doubting our credentials. “Since the start of the strike we have been faced with allegations that we are getting support from Maoists and Tamil extremist groups. We have lost faith in men,” she said.
She was referring to the allegation by local MLA S Rajendran in a TV discussion: that the strike could have been orchestrated by external forces. Rajendran was booed away on Friday when he came to address the strikers. Later, he staged a hunger strike in solidarity, which was largely ignored by the protestors.
Asked to give its side of the story, a note released by KDHP states that they were ‘deeply saddened’ by the strike. A sudden dip in profit led to the company slashing bonus. “Tea plantations in Kerala are going through a very difficult time. For the fiscal ended on 31 March, 2015, profit was Rs 5.02 crore as against Rs 15.55 crores in the previous year. The sharp drop in tea prices in the international market has led to such a situation,” said the note.