Over 6,000 women tea plantation workers in Kerala’s hill station of Munnar have decided to protest protest against trade unions that allegedly collude with the plantation management. The women, working in Kanan Devan Hills Plantation (KDHP) Company (formerly Tata Tea), have been on strike from Sunday, alleging that the trade union leaders have been pocketing their rightful share of monetary entitlements like bonuses.
“We pick the tea leaves, we heave the sacks of tea leaves, you heave the sacks of money leaves, there has to be an end to this,” says a slogan at a Munnar tea plantation, in the Idukki district of Kerala. “Men hardly get tough chores like us,” Ananthalakshmi, who has been a tea plucker in the plantation for over 20 years, told FE. “We even load the sacks to the trucks and are disproportionately paid”.
At present, they get Rs 170 to Rs 230 per working day, which often stretches to 12 hours. The men, according to them, get the same wages for lighter tasks like fostering the plants. Women workers have been demanding a salary of Rs 500 and a bonus of 20%. Political leaders and trade union leaders have notably kept away from the scene of protest for the last five days.
On Sunday, the protesting women workers even laid siege to the trade union offices. On Tuesday, the traffic on the Kochi-Dhanushkodi national highway was paralysed for most of the day, due to the magnitude of the protest.
The stir by estate workers has battered the tourism industry a good deal. Visitors to Munnar have been stuck inside their hotels as they are unable to move around the hill station due to the blockade. Hotels have started complaining of cancellations of bookings because of the troubled atmosphere.
The women workers are not mincing words while making allegations against the union leaders. “All trade unions, affiliated to the major political parties in Kerala, CPI(M), CPI and Congress, have been equally guilty of conniving with the plantations management to keep women workers from getting their due entitlements. They have been pocketing money from the management. Some of them have become members of the state assembly, utilising the social power and money attained by playing middlemen between workers and management” says Ratnamani, whose family has been working in Munnar plantations for three generations.
Although the BJP called for a bandh in Idukki district, the striking women did not allow the party to intervene in the issue.
Officials at the labour commissioner’s office say that they had convened a meeting of the workers, representatives of the company management and trade unions to discuss the grievances. However, the meeting failed to cobble up a consensus.
Meanwhile, the KHDP management claims it was the fall in profits from the previous years that had forced them to reduce the bonus. The company incurred a fall in its income by 68% in 2014-15 compared with the previous year.
The company had, in a press release, clarified that the decision was taken after consulting the leaders of the main trade unions. While the women workers have demanded 20% bonus, the company is willing to give 10%.
* At present, the women workers get Rs 170 to Rs 230 per working day, which often stretches to 12 hours
* The women workers have been demanding a salary of Rs 500 and a bonus of 20%