1. When Did It Start?
On September 5, around 50 women gathered in front of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company (KDHP) office to protest. Within a week, there were thousands.
2. What Were The Demands That Kicked Off The Agitation?
It began with a bonus cut, from 20% to 10%. The women workers, who comprise most of the tea pickers, demanded an increase in annual bonus from 10 percent back to 20 percent and a minimum wage increase from around Rs 250 to Rs 500 per day, for 10 hours’ labour. (The minimum wage is contingent on the production of at least 20kg of tea leaves per day.
3. Is It An All-Women Protest?
The plantation workers successfully organised a large-scale strike without the help of trade unions or political party involvement. In fact, they explicitly told the trade unions and parties to stay out of their strike. As writer J Devika puts it, considering Kerala’s history of all-male trade unionism, “The Munnar struggle thus falls like a thunderous slap on the cheek on Kerala’s highly patriarchal history of trade unionism.” Not only do the workers suspect that trade unions and political parties are complicit in the plantation’s treatment of them, but is also a clear gender divide here. The women are paid less than the men despite performing heavier manual labour than them.
4. What are the conditions under which the women work?
The work affects the women’s health severely. Knee damage, pesticide inhalation and uterus damage are some of the occupational hazards. But they are only allowed three days of free in-patient treatment per year. And the supervisors’ treatment of them is inhuman: they are under pressure to increase their speed of plucking, are not allowed to take toilet breaks, and have to pluck with one hand even while drinking tea. It has to be said that this is irrepressibly reminiscent of slave labour on cotton plantations in the southern US. But apparently the workers hold 60 percent of the plantation shares – that doesn’t sound like slave labour. Where does that manifest in their lifestyles and working conditions, though? The National Commission for Women now wants to study their situation. Let’s hope it leads to something concrete.
5. Have there been negotiations?
When it came to negotiations with the strikers, at first, the women did get front row seats at the negotiations, along with Chief Minister Oomen Chandy and Labour Minister Shibu Baby John. On September 13, the KDHP workers’ bonus was increased to 20 percent. But later last month, when minimum wage negotiations took place, the women were not allowed into the room! Only the Plantation Labour Committee (PLC) was. Pembila Orumai (Women United), a women’s organization that represents the tea workers, was told it had no place in the negotiations. And these negotiations failed.
6. What’s the latest on the strike?
Inspired by the KDHP strike’s success with regard to their annual bonus, this week, lakhs of estate workers have gone on strike (not just from tea plantations) along with KDHP workers and trade unions, demanding the minimum daily wage of Rs 500. But now violence has broken out as Pembila Orumai members have been attacked by trade unionists, who stoned them while the police apparently first looked on. And when the violence escalated, the crowd was lathi charged. And now Pembila Orumai has to call off the strike in the evenings because the police have warned them that although there are enough police personnel to protect them, they would still be taking risks by gathering at night.
7. Do the Trade Unions Have no Space for Women?
Women leaders of the trade union Joint Action Council (JAC) have now joined the trade unionists’ hunger strike. Looks like the trade unions have realized that without the women they just plain look bad. Or are they going to give the women a real voice in the JAC?
8 Is this Big?
With many current events, it’s hard to gauge the long-term impact of a collective struggle. But for the Munnar strike it’s safe to say that it has been groundbreaking for women and for labour, and is going to inspire people for a long time to come. Writers and activists have raised funds for a Rs 1 lakh award for Pembila Orumai. A filmmaker has undertaken to make a movie about the strike. And now, not only plantation workers, women labourers working in shrimp peeling are planning strikes for better pay. Let’s hope this turns into an epidemic.