It’s a tale of women, who are barely literate, but they fought and won a battle against the most powerful companies in the world.
Tea plantation women workers of Kerala, who work for Kanan Devan Hills Plantations, which is part-owned and largely controlled by the Tata, sparked an outrage against the company’s decision to cut the bonus paid to tea pickers.
Shaking the patriarchal trade unions who have failed to help them, on September 1 they formed Pempilai Orumai, or the women workers solidarity, to collectively put forward their demand.
Bravely, they sat on the roads of Munnar town on the same day to launch their protest. Gradually, the demonstration grew ever larger as women from different estates came to participate. As many as 6000 women workers protested against the atrocities of the company.
The workers were often forced to live and work in bad conditions. Their wages so low (Rs.230 for a day) that they were unable to meet even basic demands of their families who were left malnourished and vulnerable to fatal illnesses.
The women complained that they lived in one-bed huts without toilets and other basic amenities and, their pay for a day’s work was half what a daily wage labourer in Kerala would get.
Undeterred by hindrance caused by planters, politicians and members of trade unions, they continued their strike for many days.
When S Rajendran, a former union leader who is now the CPI(M) legislator from Munnar, visited them, the women attacked him with sandals. He had to be rescued by the police.
But their main disappointment (apart from planters and politicians) was with treacherous union leaders. When male trade union leaders tried to join the protest they were chased away.
They shouted, “We toil the whole day, you loot us”, “We carry tea leaves in our baskets; you carry money in your baskets”, “We live in tin sheds, you enjoy bungalows” amongst others.
On September 13, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy revised the state’s daily wage to Rs.500 and announced an economic package for Munnar. However, planters refused to comply with the changes.
Eventually, the company gave in and accepted their demand to bring back the 20 per cent bonus.
But their battle was not over yet. They wanted revised daily wages and continued their indefinite strike. Meanwhile, the male trade union leaders also joined the protest on October 1, demanding Rs.500 daily wage.
The negotiations started but with no definite result. Also, they refused to take along leaders of Pempilai Orumai, arguing that they were not part of the Plantation Labour Committee.
The planters unanimously opposed the wage revision, claiming it would make the plantation industry unviable in Kerala.
But on October 15, the deadlock ended.
At a meeting with the government keeping a watch, it was decided that the daily minimum wage would be raised to Rs 301 and the joint committee of various trade unions called off their strike.
Although Pembilai Orumai withdrew its strike, it said that it was not satisfied as they’d wanted a minimum daily wage of Rs.500.
“The success of Pembilai Orumai has taught trade unions to provide women more forums to air their views. It has put an end to male dominance in trade union leadership,” said RSP leader N K Premachandran.
The women are determined to fight for their rights.
Lissy Sunny, one of the leaders of Pempilai Orumai, said, “We have nothing to lose. Hunger and suffering are part of our lives. We don’t care even if we starve to death. But we won’t allow anyone to exploit us. Enough is enough.”