There was a look of puzzled amusement on the face of Kerala Labour Minister Shibu Baby John, Power Minister and trade union veteran Aryadan Mohammed as they sat on Thursday across the negotiation table with leaders of the predominantly women estate workers of Munnar who are on a strike for the past one week demanding a higher bonus.
Behind the five very ordinary looking women sat the stalwarts of major trade unions in Munnar, who had been negotiating with the estate managements on behalf of the workers all these years. The meeting could not break the deadlock and the next round of talks between the workers’ representatives and the government would take place on Sunday. And, on Friday, the women showed how deep their anger went, by literally driving away CPI(M) legislator S. Rajendran, but later relented to welcome CPI legislator E.S. Bijimol to their midst. At their meeting with the Ministers and at Munnar, the women were very clear and focused: they were not willing to buy the arguments of the company for not paying lower bonus this year.
Dilemma Talking to the media after the meeting, Mr. Baby John actually admitted to the government’s dilemma in dealing directly with the workers when the trade union leadership, with whom it had all along done business, sat silent spectators. If the Minister had any doubt in his mind, the women of Munnar removed all that on Friday when they made it clear that they did not want any intermediary. Their acceptance of Ms. Bijimol, a firebrand leader of the CPI, appeared more a display of gender solidarity than acceptance of her intervention. Around 10,000 women workers have been occupying the key roads in Munnar over the past few days under women whose faces are yet to register on the public mind.
The government has begun to see who might be behind the agitating women, a strategy that it had adopted when the Chengara land stir was at its peak, insinuating that the strike is being fomented by Maoists.
Since the women participating in the strike are predominantly Tamil-speaking, there has also been some talk about the possibility of the strike been engineered by political forces from across the border. The real message of the women agitators — that they did not require the established trade unions to fight their battles — appears to have been lost on both the unions and the government. The stir also shows that the politics of the working class has still not run its course in Kerala.