In the first week of September 2015, on a mundane afternoon, the natives of Munnar (a hill town in the Idukki district of Kerala) were taken aback by the sound of an unknown song—well, more like a collection of loud human voices which followed a rhythm, albeit it did not sing of beauty. It was a song rooted in rage, exploitation and resistance—the source of which were the women tea plantation workers of Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Limited (KDHPL) sloganeering in front of the management office of the company.
We Need Pombilai Orumai to Bring the ‘Labour Question’ Home
Even though tea plantation workers and their work comes under the organized sector, the wage of the workers is lower than most of the unorganized sector workers. The protest (in the form of a strike and road blockage) which lasted for almost nine consecutive days was started on the pretext of the company’s decision to reduce the bonus to 10% which earlier was 20%.
The unprecedented nature of this agitation where more than 12,000 women were mobilized, becomes apparent in the first glance at its anatomy. The movement in its entirety was spearheaded by women workers, who came from the most marginalized intersections in the tea industry. Majority of the women were non-unionised, working class, Tamil migrants with little or no formal education belonging to the ‘lower caste’ communities. The group named itself—‘Pombilai Orumai’—which translates to ‘Women’s Unity’, and went on to become a registered all women’s trade union. From its very genesis, it were the women workers who occupied the centre as well as the backstage—from strategy making, to protesting, talking to the media and the crowd, and finally representing the group during the marathon negotiations with the then Chief Minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, and the Labour Minister Shibu Baby John which ended in the reinstatement of 20% bonus.
The men be it tea plantation labourers or the trade union leaders were all merely “allowed” to occupy the peripheral space both literally as well as metaphorically throughout the movement.
The demands and concerns raised by its leaders like Lisy Sunny and G. Gomathi were more nuanced than the simple issue of a wage hike or bonus, and focused on the necessity of anti-capitalist movements to also be anti-patriarchal and anti-caste. They criticised KDHPL for extracting surplus by exploiting the labour of the tea plantation workers without paying them a fair wage and explained their further subordination by the virtue of their gender and caste identities in the hands of male leaders of various party affiliated tea plantation unions like, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), and Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC).
The unions were called out for being patriarchal in their functioning and structure, by not prioritising the issues raised by women and giving out all the top positions and decision-making power to men, respectively. They were also questioned for being an accomplice to the capitalist class in exploiting the labouring class by not implementing the existing welfare measures efficiently for personal gains. One of the major demands was construction of sanitary toilets which was ignored by the unions in earlier strikes.
The women in the movement spoke openly about the oppressive family structures that uphold power imbalance in the favour of men in marital relations which has made it socially acceptable for men to spend all the hard-earned money including women’s wages on alcohol. Alcoholism according to the protesting women rendered them financially incapable to educate their children or access health care facilities. This highlights the feminisation of all the work that is performed outside the site of ‘productive labour’, which results in doubling the burden borne by women to earn money and perform care work.
They further elaborated on the existing gender discrimination in the tea plantation work in which women did most of the labour-intensive work like tea leaf plucking and carrying heavy loads which results in various health issues among women in the long run and were still paid lower wages than men even after the Equal Renumeration Act was passed in 1975.
The movement by placing the issues that women tea plantation workers faced in and outside their work together resulted in blurring the boundaries of their domestic and professional lives just how they exist in the realm of reality. A space for assertion of different identities becomes a necessity for any social struggle to escape the creation of hierarchy within its cadre. Pombilai Orumai stands for a newly recognized ‘collective identity’ which helped these women to forge solidarities on the basis of their shared lived experiences of oppression by the social structures of gender, class, caste and region.
To think of this strike only in terms of class relations would be an erasure of the novelty of the space that it has carved out for “collective bargaining” which calls for a more inclusive reimagination of the “labour question”.
Revisiting the History to Understand the Present
To challenge China’s monopoly in the global tea trade, British colonizers started the first commercial tea plantation in India in Upper Assam in 1837 and now India is its second largest producer globally. Since tea could only be cultivated in certain far off hilly areas with very less human civilization, most of the tea workers were migrants belonging to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes who owned very less in the mainland. These workers have continued to live in deplorable conditions since the beginning.
Tea cultivation is mainly dependent on manual labour and since the colonial times, the entire families of the migrants including children, were employed in it. Sarkar and Bhowmik in Trade Unions and Women Workers in Tea Plantation write that, “...family migration ensured that the labour could be reproduced which in turn would ease the problem of further recruitment in the future.” This also meant that one of the most efficient ways to cut production cost in order to gain profit was to pay abysmally low wages to the workers.
Even though the Plantation Labour Act, 1951 makes it necessary for the employer to provide accommodation, medical, educational and creches facilities to the workers and their families, its implementation is yet very poor. The lack of these facilities forces women to devote all their time outside the plantation work in childcare, fetching water, cooking etc. These regions were mostly cut off from the spaces where major collective politics was happening. Post-independence, this isolation was somewhat lessened which led to mass organization of the workers.
In 1948, the first tea plantation workers’ union ‘Dooars Cha Bagan Worker’s Unity’ was formed in West Bengal and even though the trade union movement started late in this sector, it grew rapidly and for a brief period of time it was also militant in nature. The West Bengal tea workers’ strike with the support of more than 20,000 workers where most women were at the forefront in 1955, is considered to be the most important initial movement in the sector for the implementation of the Bonus Act, Maternity Rights etc.
With the liberalisation of the Indian economy, there was a shift of focus from workers’ rights to interests of the capitalist classes which made it difficult for the trade unions to demand for labour friendly policies resulting in loss of significant bargaining power of the unions. Most of the prominent trade unions are party affiliated and more than often, the party’s agenda side-lines a holistic engagement with ‘labour question’ and the representation that these unions claim to make reduces to mere tokenism in case of most women workers.
Even though women make more than half of the workforce in tea plantations and a huge chunk of their population is unionised, one rarely sees women as leaders in any of the mainstream unions. The stringent gender roles make working class women “time poor” and they can rarely take part in trade union activities which require attending meetings and other gatherings, most of which are outside the domestic boundaries. The sexist understanding that women are incapable of leading movements and holding positions of power over men, prevents women from carrying on their association with union wholeheartedly.
As most of these women are at the lower level working positions in the industry, they are rarely given respect or taken seriously. Thus, for women, it has become a never-ending loop of trauma and exploitation—a “civilized slavery” as some call it. In 2018, following the steps of Pombilai Orumai, more than 500 women workers protested against the tea estates of Harrisons Malayalam Ltd. in Idukki and Wayanad districts by slowing down the tea leaf picking process.
Where are we now?
The current pandemic in 2020 has brought the worst for these workers as most of the plantations continue with the production process even during the lockdown without implementing any safety measures of social distancing or masks. Given the knowledge that most of these workers especially women and children are anaemic and malnourished, this can prove to be fatal but these state-facilitated capitalist companies couldn’t care less. Due to this and non-payment of wages, the workers of Happy Valley tea garden in Darjeeling are on a strike for something which is rightfully theirs.
Amidst the state’s willingness to dilute the labour laws and most male dominated unions’ apathy, things have looked a little hopeful as these workers, especially women, have started to organise themselves and have spoken up against their exploiters, but the real transformation demands to be structural which still is a far-fetched dream.
Featured Image Source: YKA