The labour-intensive tea industry is notorious for low wages and exploitation. Workers get 233 rupees, nearly $3.50 per day which starts from 8am and carries on until dark.
“This is half of what a daily wage labourer in Kerala gets. Women workers live in sub-human conditions, stay in one-bed huts without toilets and other basic amenities,” explained Lissie Sunny who helped form the Unity of Women, popularly known as Pompilai Orumai (PO) “The unions have been cheating workers for generations. They have a mutual tie-up with the tea company managements. The leaders lead a flamboyant life; get free company houses to live in. Their children get good education and jobs thanks to the plantation owners.”
The women workers accuse the male trade union leaders of ignoring the rights and benefits of women workers while ensuring good positions and financial benefits for their relatives and dependants. Meenu Ammal, an illiterate worker, said that a trade union mafia controls tea plantations and takes huge amounts of money from owners in the guise of labourers’ welfare.
6,000 women labourers have held protests as they said they had been exploited for years and are now ready for their rights. The male labour union leaders are now put on notice that the history of male-dominated national trade union politics excluding women was about to change. Weeks of protests at the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations, controlled by the Indian multinational Tata, which had clamped down on not only the growing unrest due to exploitation of women workers for years but also the gender-based discrimination in the tea sector. The Munnar mobilisation is now known as the ‘Jasmine Revolution’.
Dr. Sreelekha Nair, an independent researcher in women’s studies in Thiruvananthapuram, said the tea workers’ strike is a landmark struggle that needs to be recognised for its gender aspect.
K. Sahadevan, a well-known national human rights activist from Kerala, told IPS that a new trend is forming among women in the country to come forward for better wages and ensuring other rights of female workers. “There have been a series of strikes led by females in recent times for women. Mainstream trade unions were not involved in these. Most of these struggles were successful following innovative mobilisation strategies and support from outside the traditional union circles. Women are losing faith in union leaders sponsored by political parties,” he pointed out.
Dr. Siva Prasad, an expert in labour laws, said the established unions in the country are led by males who are not bothering about the women workers either in the organized or unorganized sectors. “The unorganised labourers are getting low wages and work on deplorable terms and conditions. The lesson from the strike teaches that a united struggle for rights would benefit women at large, and female workers could not be easily bluffed by politically-backed union leaders,” he told IPS.
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