Munnar strike: a wake up call to unions

Activist Satish shared his experiences on the Munnar tea planters struggle in a meeting organized by Kumuga Viduthalai Thozhillalar, which is a workers group from MRF fatory. The meeting was organized in MRF Union Office, Thiruvottiyur on Oct 25. Sathish’s talk focused on the strike in Munnar carried out by women workers of the Kannan Devan Hill Plantation (KDHP) in defiance of the company union. It was 9 day long and the workers were successful in getting their demand of a higher bonus. Satish’s talk was followed by a beef curry festival.

Courtesy of Kutti Revathi

Courtesy of Kutti Revathi

KDHP is the largest plantation company in South India, and it owns most of the lands in a 150 Km radius of Munnar. It is a worker owned plantation company and was formed in 2005 when Tata Tea handed over management of production in its tea plantations to workers. But Tata has continued to own the marketing side of the company.Last year, while KDHP made a profit of Rs 5 crore (after receiving a subsidy of Rs 65 crore from the government), the marketing side, controlled by Tata made a profit of Rs 265 crore. Being worker-owned does not imply that KDHP is equitably owned – tea pluckers only own 12% of the shares, whereas managers, supervisors, legal advisers etc own 46% of the shares. Because of declining profits of the company, workers only received Rs 300 as dividend on their share holding. This amount was given to them as a cheque. To cash the cheque, the worker has to skip work for the day, losing the day’ wages. Together with the money spent on food and transportation to the bank, the amount exceeds Rs 300.

For pluckers in the tea plantations, working conditions are hard. Working hours are long and workers don’t stop even when it rains. The tea basket is tied very tight to their bellies. The workers avoid taking toilet breaks, because that would involve untying the basket, which would cause some loss of time. The daily wage is Rs 232, and they have to pluck a minimum of 23 Kgs. The pluckers get paid an additional incentive of Rs 1.50 for every extra kilo of tea they pick. Typically, workers pick more than 100 kilos a day, but getting an incentive is a very rare occurrence, because a lot of the tea leaves are ‘rejected’ by managers and supervisors on the pretext that they are not of good enough grade. This tea is then sold by the managers in the black market.

On 2nd September,incidentally on the day of national strike against State’s neo-liberal policies, the union told the workers that they had negotiated a bonus of 10% with the management. The women workers refused to accept the bonus and went on strike to demand a 20% bonus. The strike continued for 9 days. On hearing the news of the strike, workers from all the nearby estates joined, and there were 7000-8000 workers sitting in the dharna every day. Other people in the town helped by providing the striking workers transportation, food and other services.

The usual rumours were circulated – that the strike was incited by Naxals or Tamil extremists. CPM leader Achuthanandan joined the protest. After 9 days of protest, and after a long negotiation, that was brokered by Kerala Chief Minister Oomen Chandy, the workers won their demand of 20% bonus. Buoyed by their success, the workers of KDHP are now demanding a wage increase to Rs 500 per day. Their success also had an effect on the other big plantation, Harrison Malayalam. The workers there had been given the statutory minimum bonus of 8.33%. The workers there are now asking for a higher bonus.

There is also a gender aspect to the pluckers’ struggle in KDHP. At the lowest level, most workers are women. Though there are some men who do jobs like spraying, plucking is entirely done by women. Managers and supervisors are all male. The leadership in all the major unions -AITUC, CITU and INTUC – is male.

This strike is a wake-up call to union leadership everywhere. In many cases, union leaders have tried to quiet down workers’ unrest pretending to take matters into their hands and reassuring workers that they would negotiate with the management. But often, union leaders have been found to be hand in glove with management. In KDHP, workers discovered that union leaders have received many benefits from the management – like bungalows, and managerial positions for their sons. Another example where workers have organized a struggle, independent of the existing union, is that of Maruti in Manesar. The workers ended up forming a new union which led the strike. These incidents have given a message to union leadership that they would be taken seriously only if they maintain their connection with workers, and not become tool of the management.

The next part of the meeting focused on the emerging fascism in the country – brought out by the increasing intolerance of beef-eating in various states. The organizer of the meeting, Sekar pointed out that alongwith corporate-friendly reforms of labour laws, the central government, together with the RSS, is also pushing down a Hindutva agenda. By dictating what people can and cannot eat, they are imposing a dominant upper caste Hindu culture on society. These issues should be seen in a unified way, especially since most workers are Dalits or lower castes. In fact, in the Munnar plantation, most workers are Palars (a Dalit caste) from Tirunelveli.

Courtesy of Kutti Revathi

Courtesy of Kutti Revathi

The second speaker of the day R.R.Srinivasan gave an account of the history of the beef issue. He brought out the point that currently India is the largest exporter of beef in the world, and these export businesses are controlled primarily by upper caste Hindus, exposing the hypocrisy of their position.

After the talks, MRF workers had a beef party to defy the Hindutva crackdown on beef-eating – there was some tasty beef curry served with idli!

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