In Kerala, victory for ‘Pombilai Orumai’ 

October 18, 2015 01:37 am | Updated 01:37 am IST

The historic women workers’ protests that rocked the plantations in Kerala for the last one-and-a-half months, followed closely by a State-wide struggle, have been called off, following what could at best be described as a mixed outcome from the point of view of the workers. The plantation managements may consider this as another victory, the workers agreeing to be content with a 30 per cent hike in wages as against their original demand for a 100 per cent increase. Yet, the struggle has been path-breaking in that it has helped bring to light the harsh living and working conditions in the colonial-era plantations. It has also exposed the state, the trade unions and the plantation industry, the first two for their political absence in the region and the third for its exploitative practices. Though the struggle is over, it does not signify a permanent redress of the workers’ grievances.

It was on September 5 that the women workers, united under the women’s collective that they have named ‘Pombilai Orumai’, began marching in small groups to the headquarters of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Limited (KDHP) in Munnar, Kerala, challenging their own trade unions and simultaneously demanding a fair increase in their wages and bonus payments. It quickly turned into a resistance movement without a precedent, with thousands of Dalit women breaking away from their trade unions, joining the struggle, and representing themselves in a bold rebellion against capitalism and patriarchy, including a male-dominated trade union structure.

The struggle, though initially ignored by the media, captured public attention when the women workers gheraoed the KDHP managing director, and later stopped the local CPI (M) MLA from meeting the striking workers. It triumphed, though only partially, when the managements agreed to a 20 per cent package, including 8.33 per cent bonus and 11.67 per cent one-time ex-gratia payment. The managements, however, continued to resist the demand for a hike in wages. The trade unions that had joined the struggle by this time, however, were adamant that the minimum wage should be raised to Rs. 500. The managements, however, maintained that the industry could not cope with these demands as there was a drastic decline in net profits: from Rs.16 crore to Rs.5 crore over the year, due to a decline in tea prices.

Fall in auction prices for tea

While it is true that there was a fall in auction prices, mainly due to overproduction of tea in countries such as Kenya, it is not clear how a 15-20 per cent decline in prices led to a 66 per cent decline in profits, that too when the companies’ own records show a growth in sales. There has also been no significant increase in capital expenditure or in statutory benefits to the workers. Perhaps the real reason for a fall in profitability lay in the significant increase in depreciation shown in the company’s accounts, which has had the effect of depressing the net profit after tax.

With the mainstream trade unions also entering the protest domain and the Plantation Labour Committee (PLC) meetings failing to overcome the deadlock after a series of discussions, the workers were plunged into further misery. The struggle then spread to other regions, taking within its purview workers involved in the plantation of other crops, particularly those working in cardamom and rubber estates. It finally brought a solution with an increase in the basic daily pay. The basic daily pay of an estate worker engaged in plucking tea leaves will now be Rs.301 as against Rs.232 earlier, with the addition of various statutory benefits. This is an increase of 30 per cent from the pre-existing minimum wage, higher than what the trade unions managed to bargain for in 2013. 

The Dalit women’s consolidation that emerged in Munnar offers lessons to all the three agencies involved in the stir: the state, the trade unions and the plantation management. While the state and the trade unions were politically absent in Munnar, and more so in the remaining plantation belts, the plantation managements turned their estates into mini empires. While the absence of the state was a colonial-era legacy, with the colonial plantation managements themselves admitting that they were a “state within state, the situation of the trade unions was different. The unions had earlier been involved in projecting the workers’ concerns. However, over the years, their involvement too has become as minimal as that of the state under neoliberalism.

The ‘Pompilai Orumai,’ in protest against the system of gender segregation practised in the plantations, kept at bay not only the male trade union leaders, but also the men in their own family during the struggle. ‘Pombilai Orumai’ is now busy building its own union on its own terms; it has also fielded candidates in the local government elections to be held in early November. The struggle also reminds us that even within the laudable Kerala model of social development, the Dalit experience leaves much to be desired. Dalit families have lived in two-room tenements (layams) for generations and their conditions do not reflect the much-applauded social welfare indicators of the State.  

What we have been witnessing in plantations in the post-1991 liberalisation phase is a repetition of history with the burden being repeatedly transferred to workers and the prosperity being solely enjoyed by the managements. The workers have thus remained trapped in the global commodity chain for decades. There has also been a gradual removal of their rights. Neither the state nor the trade unions seem politically equipped to challenge this.

(K. Ravi Raman is senior fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), New Delhi. His e-mail address is raviraman2013@gmail.com.)

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