(Comrades Ramesh and Bhuvana visited Munnar on October 15 and met the fighting tea women workers. That was the last day of the strike as the women workers have decided to call off the 17 days strike and wait for next PLC meet to be held on November 4. They spoke to Lissy Sunny and Rajeswari who led the successful protest for bonus and to the brave women gathered in their famous protest spot and waiting for their leaders to speak. Gomathi who is also one among the leaders had been to Devikulam for some important work. They also spoke to some of their men comrades. Here are some voices of the fighting women workers, and some observations, compiled by Ramesh and Bhuvana.)
In their own words
The women workers of Munnar whose agitation is anything but a storm in a tea cup, said:
‘Yes. If we go on strike, we will lose our wages. We can go without food for 10 days… but can the management go without profit for 10 days? That is why the management came down in the bonus issue and agreed to our demand. We now got 20% bonus. In the wage hike issue also we will succeed.’
‘When we met the Labour Minister he agreed for Rs. 350 as wages per 21 kg. Now in the PLC meeting the unions have agreed for Rs. 301 proposed by the government. Is this not betrayal? If the Minister says he can go up to Rs. 350, it means he has more in mind. It shows we can still go further. Rs. 301 is something we will not accept. We will wait for the final decision of the next PLC (Plantation Labor Committee) meet and then decide our next course of action’.
‘In the PLC meet the government and the labor unions have proposed for Rs.301 as wages for plucking 21kg. The package also includes incentive component i.e., we can earn over and above Rs.301 by plucking more than 21 kg. This actually means extracting more work from us. The management is ready to accept for Rs.301 but for 31 kg. Why should we accept more and more work load? We want Rs. 500 for 21 kg. We will not rest until our demand for Rs.500 is met. We want Rs. 500 for 21 kgs. Incentive can be decided only after this point’.
‘Who said we are against men? They are our co-workers and almost all of them are family members. How can we fight against them? Actually our struggle is for them also. In our ‘Pembilai Orumai’ we have not only women workers as members. We have men workers also in our ‘Pembilai Orumai.’ We did not involve men in the strike action as it would become easy for the police to handle them. It would have been impossible to sustain the strike longer as police would easily unleash force on men and would have arrested them. Such crackdown was not possible for the police as it is not that easy to use force on women when they gather in large numbers. There is another problem too. Some of them may take liquor and become trouble makers. That is why we kept them away from the strike. Otherwise, our men workers stood supportive in all possible ways during our first round of protest. In this second round also they are helping us from behind.
‘While we go for work we leave home by 6 in the morning and reach home back by 6 in the evening. When we were under strike we left home by 8 in the morning and reach 8 in the evening. We are used to finishing our household work in a short span. As we walk to our work place at least 2 to 3 km every day we walked to the protest spot too. This is our struggle for our rights. We did not find any difficulty in this.’
‘All our family members were and are supportive. Many of our family members are co-workers. And we are fighting for the welfare of our family. Where does the question of their objecting to our protest arise? If there are such objections also, we will not give up our struggle. This is our right. Even if we have to face divorce we will move on with our struggle for our rights.’
‘Our unions were everything for us. They taught us to be courageous. But there were other problems as well. Of late we felt that they are not serious about raising our issues forcefully. They are just explaining the management’s positions to us. We also found that those in the leadership level in the union have a better lifestyle than an ordinary member. The bonus issue was the final straw. We felt that we were cheated. We decided to fight on our own. Now we won our struggle for bonus.’
‘For every Re.1 that we get as incentive the supervisor gets Rs.2, the division field officer gets Rs.4, in charge for 3 divisions get Rs. 8, the junior manager gets Rs. 16 and the senior manager gets Rs.32. As we work more those involved in administration get more. So they employ many inhuman methods to extract more work from us. Sometimes the supervisors would cite some reason or the other and reject large quantity of leaves and issue a red card. This will result in cut in incentive component. Even if the worker had plucked 100 kg, it would not be considered for incentive. We are not paid double wages for overtime work. But records are created to show that we are paid double wages for overtime work. Abraham Mathew, managing director of the company gets Rs.4,80,000 as salary per month. What work is he doing to get this huge amount?’
‘We are working here for 4 to 5 generations. The company has never shown profit. It always says it is suffering loss. Then how do the officers and supervisors lead a luxurious life? How are their children going to posh schools?’
‘We have just lost all our energy after all these years of heavy work. We are all working here for more than 10 years. We have to carry heavy weight in the steep slopes and as a result all of us undergo knee pain. We do not get proper treatment in the Tata hospital. Even there we have to pay for the medical care as the Tata hospital says we can get treatment only if KDHP pays. So we are forced to go the hospitals in Theni. Many of our women have removed their uteruses due to severe gynecological problems’.
‘There are leeches, snakes and other insects in the plantations. We have to pluck tea leaves from the tea plants with one hand and leeches from our bodies with the other hand. Many workers have suffered snake bites. Elephants and other wild animals too come into our plantations sometimes. Many workers have suffered bone injuries. During rains the rain water drips into our food like rasam and get mixed. We eat only such food’.
‘Our monthly salary in paper is Rs.5,013.96. After deductions for rice, firewood, diesel and loans, we get only around two thousand five hundred rupees. What can we do with this? Is it enough even for decent food? What will we then do for our children education and other expenses? We are withdrawing from our PF account every time to meet our emergency expenses. Sometimes when we ask for loans the management asks will you repay it from the retirement benefit? We are not able send our children to schools and colleges. We send them for some work or the other in the shops in the market’.
‘If we go the management with some minor issues they are telling us to come with some union representative. Now we will speak for ourselves. We should get justice’.
‘We will not go back to our unions. We are going to register ‘Pembila Orumai’ as a trade union soon. Our union will have both women and men workers. 80% workers of KDHP are with us’.
These voices of the Munnar fighters have clearly brought to focus the extent of exploitation they have been undergoing for decades. These voices render irrelevant some of the headlines such as ‘anti-trade union’ and ‘anti-men’ still doing rounds. Tea leaf pluckers constitute 80% of the work force and they are women. They are very clear that their fight is against the company. The majority of them are dalits.
The Blood Sucker
The Hindu in its editorial on October 16 titled ‘Lessons from an agitation’ says that ‘under the settlement, the daily wages of workers in tea, coffee, cardamom and rubber plantations will go up by a fair measure’. But the details about the existing wage structure given by the fighting women workers tell us that ‘fairness’ can be found nowhere in KDHP. Their blood is not only sucked by the leeches in the tea bushes but also by the greedy company.
The existing wage structure offers them Rs. 231 per 21 kg. From 21 kg to 80 kg the worker is paid 60 paise as incentive for every extra kg. Over and above 80 Kg, for every 1 kg an incentive of Re.1 is paid. On an average a worker plucks up to 100 kg a day. This means, only for the first 21 kg they get Rs. 231. For the next 59 kg they get only Rs.35.40. From 81 kg to 100 kg the worker gets Rs. 20. Thus for 100 kg tea leaves plucked the worker gets only Rs. 231 + Rs. 35.40 + Rs. 20 = Rs. 286.40 As the management itself agrees that paying Rs. 231 for 21 kg is fair, this 79 kg is almost four times of 21 kg, which means that plucking 100 kg a day the worker should get Rs. 231 + (4 X 231) = 231 + 924 = 1155 (this does not include over time benefits while two hours overtime is usual routine). Thus, in the terms agreed by the management itself, a worker gets only Rs. 286.40 while the actual labor performed should be calculated Rs. 1,155. Can the management which cheats a worker to the tune of Rs. 924 per day say the hike demanded by the workers is very high? This only shows those workers, particularly the tea pluckers who are women generally, are living still under colonial conditions. Even in this level of exploitative wage structure the demand raised by the workers to raise the incentive to Rs. 5 is not accepted by the management.
An ordinary 3 to 4 kg tea dust which costs around Rs. 1,500 to Rs. 2,000, can be extracted from 21 kg leaves. This means the worker get more than 10%. But for the next 79 kg plucked by the worker when the worker gets only Rs. 55.40, the cost of their produce in the market is between Rs. 6,000 and Rs. 8,000 for 12 to 20 kg of tea dust.
This means for every Rs. 286.40 the worker gets for a day’s work, the produce (15 to 20 kg) brings Rs. 7213.60 (7500-286.40) to Rs. 9713.60 (10000-286.40) to the tea plantation company. Even if Tata company is spending another Rs. 1,000 for other establishment costs it gets something between Rs. 6213 to Rs. 8713 from the toil of just one worker in just one day. If this is the scale of exploitation of one worker for a single day, one can calculate the huge sum what KDHP gets from the toil of 10,000 tea pluckers, this comes out to be approximately Rs. 7.5 crores which includes the theft of Rs. 924 per worker per day for 10,000 workers (Rs. 92,40,000).
Even if tea prices fall in the market, the company would never face loss. This calculation is based only on the cost in the domestic market. The company exports quality tea too. This is bringing more and more money to the coffers of the company. After taking over from the British, the company is holding the land in Munnar without paying anything as land cost. What more does the greedy Tata company, which wears the mask of KDHP, wants? It is already sucking the blood of thousands of workers.