The strike by women tea estate workers in Munnar in Kerala for bonus, now nicknamed after neelakurinji flowers, was a resounding success. (The workers did not face any police brutality unlike the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia.) Its political implications are significant and will be watched for long.
Notably, it was the recognised trade unions— rather than the tea company (Kannan Devan Hills Plantation), which had to give in to women power as hundreds of unorganised women labourers from the estates thronged the roads of Munnar virtually paralyzing traffic and economic activities in the town including tourism. Politicians and trade union leaders who spoke against them had to eat their words. This was the result of the unions betraying the workers for long.
Chief Minister Oommen Chandy had to convene urgent meeting with the women’s representatives, keeping away the trade unionists, to settle the strike. The labourers were demanding 20 per cent bonus this year and company was refusing to pay that saying that its profits had come down. However, company is a captive unit of Tata Global Beverages and profits depended on at what prices tea was being sold to the Tata group company.
The argument of the trade unions that the women made a mistake in agreeing to a reduced the bonus component of 8.33 per cent and the balance as ex-gratia has no much merit. They say that next year they would be able to start the negotiations from 8.33 per cent bonus component against 10 per cent promised by the company this year. But, next year’s outcome will depend on what force the women are able to muster next year. However, an immediate concern to them will be forthcoming negotiations on daily wages which is one of the lowest among agricultural labourers in Kerala. The workers are demanding daily wages of Rs. 500 which is about double the current wages. Minimum wages of women agriculture labourers in Kuttanad is Rs. 330 a day while that of men is Rs. 560 a day.
The estates workers may be on the way for substantial gains in this respect as Labour Minister Shibhu Baby John had to swallow his remarks that such a wage level was not feasible in tea plantations. The women labourers are now trying to form a union of their own. They may succeed given their will power. But there is no guarantee that the new union too will not go the way of existing unions which had sacrificed workers’ interests for personal gains of their leaders. May be it is better for the women to remain ‘unorganised’.
However, a crucial development to watch will be whether some of these women will emerge as contestants in the forthcoming panchayat elections. If they do, it could cause considerable worries to the political parties and unions, and rewrite history. Emergence of an alternative to the unions in Munnar like the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi could not be ruled out. If that happens, the established political parties will be the losers.