19 October 2015
- From the section India
This is the story of an extraordinary uprising, a movement of 6,000 barely educated women labourers who took on one of the most powerful companies in the world.
In a country plagued by sexism they challenged the male-dominated world of trade unions and politics, refusing to allow men to take over their campaign.
And what’s more, they won.
You may well have enjoyed the fruits of their labour. The women are tea pickers from the beautiful south Indian state of Kerala. They work for a huge plantation company, Kanan Devan Hills Plantations, which is part-owned and largely controlled by the Indian multinational, Tata, the owner of Tetley Tea.
The spark that ignited the protest was a decision to cut the bonus paid to tea pickers, but its roots go much deeper than that.
Tea workers in India are not well treated. When I investigated the industry in Assam last month I found living and working conditions so bad, and wages so low, that tea workers and their families were left malnourished and vulnerable to fatal illnesses.
It seems conditions in Kerala are not much different.
Part of the women’s complaint is that they live in one-bed huts without toilets and other basic amenities and, while they earn significantly more than the tea workers in Assam, they say the 230 rupees (£2.30; $3.50) they are paid for a day’s work is half what a daily wage labourer in Kerala would get.
But when, in early September, the women in Kerala demanded the bonus be reinstated – along with a hike in daily wages and better living conditions – it was not just a challenge to the company that employs them, but also to the trade unions that are supposed to represent them.
The women workers say the male trade union leaders are in cahoots with the company management, denying women their entitlements while ensuring they get the plum jobs themselves.
When tea prices collapsed a few years back, and some estate owners abandoned their plantations, the women argue that trade union leaders always managed to keep their jobs.
They also say that the trade unions haven’t done enough to stop their men from drinking away their earnings without regard for their children’s education or the medical needs of their families.
And they showed that they could launch an effective protest without the help of the trade unions.
When 6,000 women occupied the main road to the headquarters of the plantation company it was organised by the women themselves, most of whom have no history of union agitation.
They called themselves “Pempilai Orumai”, or women’s unity.
In effect the women laid siege to the Munnar, one of Kerala’s most popular tourist destinations. Trade and tourism were brought to a near standstill.
Many slogans were directed squarely at the union leaders. “We pick the tea and carry the bags on our shoulders, you carry off the money bags,” read one. “We live in tin sheds, you enjoy bungalows,” said another.
When male trade union leaders tried to join the protest they were chased away. The women attacked one former trade union leader with their sandals. He had to be rescued by the police.
In another incident they tore down the flag poles outside the trade union offices.
They also saw off local politicians who wanted to be seen offering their support.
The women insisted they would continue the protest until their demands were met.
At first the plantation company was defiant but, after nine days of protest and marathon negotiations overseen by the chief minister of the state, it gave in.
It was a stunning victory: a group of semi-literate women had taken on the most powerful interests in the state and won.
The women had represented the workforce at the talks and forced management to accept their demand to bring back the 20% bonus. Meanwhile the male trade union leaders had to swallow their pride and sign the deal the women had negotiated.
Nothing to lose
But the battle isn’t over yet.
The issue of the pay rise was to be negotiated separately and, when the women’s demand for an increase in wages wasn’t met, the unions launched an indefinite campaign to raise rates from 232 rupees to 500 rupees a day.
In part this was an attempt to seize the initiative back, following the success of the women’s campaign.
The women have refused to be part of the union effort and launched their own independent demand for higher wages.
Earlier this month some male union activists are alleged to have attacked the women’s demonstration by throwing rocks. Six people suffered minor injuries.
But the women are determined to continue. “We have nothing to lose”, Lissy Sunny, one of the leaders of Pempilai Orumai, told the Indian news website Catch.
“Hunger and suffering are part of our lives. We don’t care even if we starve to death.
“But we won’t allow anyone to exploit us. Enough is enough.”