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Wake Up Call For Trade Unions: Women Plantation Workers Win Battle On Their Own Terms

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By Abhishek Jha

The agitation of the plantation workers of Kanan Devan Hills Plantations (KDHP)- mostly women- started on the 7th of September, was called off after the demands of the workers were met on Sunday (13th Sept). It all started when the workers refused to take their bonus at the rate of 10 per cent, which the company was trying to distribute on the 25th of August. The workers had then demanded that they be given bonus at the rate of 20 per cent. The company, which prides itself on its employee participation model, had entered into negotiations with the trade unions when the workers decided to fight on their own and called a strike. Workers gathered for a sit-in agitation, blocking the Kochi-Dhanushkodi highway and the sales outlet of KDHP, refused to allow any trade unions to join them as they alleged that the unions were working in collusion with the KDHP management to deny them 20 per cent bonus, reports have said. Further they demanded that that their daily wages be increased from Rs 231 to Rs 500.

strikers in the victory of munnar strike

The agitating workers – some 3000 in number – had also not allowed any political leader to join the protest, except CPI(M) leader V. S. Achuthanandan, who joined the protest on Sunday. After the government intervened and talked to all the stakeholders, the workers called off their protests on Sunday after the management agreed to their demand of a 20 per cent bonus. This will include a Statutory Bonus of 8.33 per cent and 11.67 per cent ex gratia. However, their demand for an increase in daily wages from Rs 231 to Rs 500 will be discussed on September 26 at the Plantation Labour Committee meeting, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy told reporters.

The company had explained in a public notice on 11th September that it was unable to accede to the workers’ demands since its profit had declined from Rs 15.55 crores in the previous year to 5.02 crores in the year that ended on 31st March 2015. However, the workers alleged that the wages paid to them are meagre since they have to pluck 21 kg of leaves to get a payment of Rs 231. A protesting worker said that they have to pay for every service offered, to the extent of Rs 100 so that their cows can graze, The Indian Express reported. The worker also told the newspaper that ordinary workers’ children do not get admission in the school run by the company.

Although the KDHP is held up as an exemplary plantation with 68 per cent of the shares held by its 13000 workers (18 per cent being held by Tata Tea, which also controls the operations), the demands have to be set in the context of the Plantation Labour Act. The workers have alleged that they are made to work for 12 hours a day when the Act provides that no worker be allowed to work for more than nine hours on any day. Similarly, section 14 of the Act states, “Where the children between the ages of six and twelve of workers employed in any plantation exceed twenty-five in number, the State Government may make rules, requiring every employer to provide educational facilities for the children in such manner and of such standard as may be prescribed.

A trade union leader speaking anonymously to The Hindu also said that the workers were angry towards the government because of its “inaction to facilitate timely revision of wages and improving housing and welfare measures of the workers as per the Plantation Act.” This also explains their alienation from the trade unions, as they alleged during the protests that some of these had been given houses to stay by the estate management. The Plantation Labour Act also has provisions regarding housing to be provided to every worker by the employer.

The protests should put pressure on the unions to start mending their ways, lest they have no support when they call for strikes. Author Meena Kandasamy, lending support to the agitating workers, said in a Facebook post: “It’s no secret that a majority of these workers speak Tamil, and Adivasi in background—and their marginalized positions also lend to great exploitation in the plantations of the Western ghats.” The workers having wrested their demands back on their own, CITU (the trade union wing of the CPM) State General Secretary K. P. Sahadevan went to the extent of alleging that Tamil extremist groups were behind the agitation. He had to withdraw his statement when the CPM and the Home Minister rejected the allegation, stating that the police did not have any such information, a report in The Indian Express stated.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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