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India: Women Tea Workers Victorious in Kerala Strike

Kerala opposition leader Achuthanandan with tea workers in Munnar. (Photo: PTI)

Kerala opposition leader Achuthanandan with tea workers in Munnar. (Photo: PTI)

A nine-day strike by thousands of tea workers, mostly women, in India’s southern Kerala state ended earlier this week after company managers at the plantation where they work agreed to meet their demands.

The Indian Express reports former Kerala Chief Minister and opposition leader V.S. Achuthanandan, a 92-year-old communist, joined protesters on Sunday, vowing to remain with them until their demands were met. The women had refused help from any other politician or trade union, claiming they had been helping Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Ltd. (KDHP), the company targeted by the strike. They trusted Achuthanandan because of his efforts while chief minister to reallocate 16,000 acres of KDHP land for the construction of employee housing.

Around 5,000 tea workers, the vast majority of them semi-literate women, staged a sit-in and occupied the road leading to KDHP headquarters in Munnar, located in the western mountains of Kerala state, starting September 5. The workers were angered over a decrease in bonus pay and also demanded higher wages—500 rupees, or about US$7.55 per day—and better living conditions.

Currently, they earn 231 rupees ($3.50) daily if they pick 21kg (46lbs) of tea leaves. While workers earn only one and a half rupees for every extra kilogram picked, estate supervisors receive 4 rupees, staff members get 6 rupees and managers earn 10 rupees from their workers’ grueling labor. Employees are also angry over the tiny, one-room houses in which they must live.

Following marathon negotiations led by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, KDHP management, which had maintained it was unable to give the workers what they wanted due to a precipitous 68 percent decline in tea profits last year, bowed to all of the striker’s major demands. The workers will now receive a 20 percent bonus, with the wage increase to be worked out during a meeting of the Plantation Labor Committee on September 26. Chandy also promised that steps would be taken to provide better medical facilities and care for KDHP workers.

“Based on this understanding, all the stakeholders, including approved trade unions, representatives of the agitating women and elected representatives of the people, reached an agreement,” Chandy told NDTV.

Upon hearing the news of the strike’s end, male tea workers erupted into celebration, embracing police officers and thanking everyone who helped the strikers win their demands.

The strike was an embarrassment to KDHP, India’s first worker-owned tea plantation, which touts itself as “an employee-centric environment.” The cover page of the company’s most recent annual report noted that it “featured among the 100 best companies to work by its employees in India” and is “ranked number one in the category of best company for employees’ involvement and participation in India”. While workers indeed own 68 percent of KDHP shares, 18 percent of the company is owned by tea giant Tata Tea, with the remaining 14 percent of shares held by a trust and others.

The worker’s action also spooked the local tourism industry. Munnar is a very popular holiday destination for both Indian and foreign travelers, and high season begins next month.

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