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The Munnar 'Green Blood Women's Revolution': Sweat, Blood And The Bitter Cup Of Tea

By Binu Karunakaran

23 September, 2015

The 'sweet' 20 per cent bonus offered to agitating tea workers of Kanan Devan Hill Plantations Ltd in Munnar, at the behest of the Kerala state government, should be seen as a ploy to contain the seething labour discontent ahead of Assembly polls and limit damages to the brand image of Tata rather than a serious attempt to address concerns raised by them.

The wages in tea plantations across India are abysmally low and companies have developed ingenious ways to keep it so. Workers of KDHP are contractually obliged for a 'base output' of 21 kg if they are to earn the days salary of Rs 232 ($3.52), well above the stipulated minimum wage but substantially lower when contrasted with other sectors.

The state of affairs in Kerala is a trifle better when compared to estates in states like Assam, where the legal minimum wage was fixed by planters at Rs 115/day ($ 1.74) in 2015, far below the state's statutory minimum of Rs 169 ($ 2.56) for unskilled workers.

Sri Lankan tea workers, compared to their counterparts in India have a better wage structure. The Ceylon Employees Federation had reached an agreement with unions in 2013 for paying workers Sri Lankan Rupees 650 per day ($4.62) . The workers are now demanding Sri Lankan Rupees 1,000 per day ($ 7.10), which has been rejected by CEF. But it seems productivity of workers have no bearing on wages in India. While South Indian plantations have a plucking average of 38 kg per worker, Sri Lanka which pays more has that of 18 kg per day.

Tea workers do a variety of jobs including plucking, pruning and spraying of pesticides besides carrying the load of leaves on their back. The worker productivity depends on the mode of plucking using hands or metal shears as scheduled by the company, which means that the output is 'managed'. The piece rates given per kg of leaves after deducting the base output go down beyond a set threshold. The workers, ironically treated as unskilled labour, are also not paid incentives if the quality of leaves is found to be low.

The colonial-era wage policies followed by corporate companies, aimed at increasing their profit margin at the cost of the worker, implicates several global brands including those certified by Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance. A study paper on "Modern day feudalism on tea plantations" by India China Institute says 125 grams of Twinings' Assam lead tea costs Rs 777, several times over the daily wage of workers who pick them. It is unfathomable that the tea industry, which according to reports, is expecting a turnover of Rs 33,000 crore ($5.4 billion) by 2015 could continue with such morally reprehensible labour policy.

War on Want, an organization based in UK, which documented the harrowing lives faced by tea workers in India and Kenya in 2010 found that only 1 per cent of the profit from global tea trade goes to the picker. The rest gets split between the retailer, blender, factory owner, trader and the auctioneer.

But rather than the economics of it, tea workers are let down by a system that treats them akin to slaves in the 21st century. The situation cannot be any more ironic than in Kerala, a state known for high literacy and right-based labour activism. The trade unions of KDHPL, which should have had greater say in the affairs of the company, because employees are shareholders, were dumped by workers because they failed to address the iniquities perpetuated by the feudal-capitalist legacy of colonial planters.

A majority of pluckers in Munnar are Tamil migrants, living in almost social isolation with no hopes of alternative livelihood or opportunities for social mobility. The free schooling that KDHP provides is only up to lower primary level, a factor that inhibits their studies because of the low wage structure. There are several deductions on food rations, electricity and medical expenses which keeps the labourers glued to near-poverty level.

The formation of KDHPL in 2005 gave Tata a corporate image makeover - a benevolent employer was seen as implementing Participatory Management System in the sector for the first time. The decision was fuelled by several reasons including fall in tea prices in first decade of the millennium and losses suffered by plantations. Tata, which wanted to focus on creation of global beverage plants, also blamed the "unreasonable" increase in labour charges for the plight. After the much hyped Employee Buy Out (EBO) workers held 74 per cent, TGB had 19 per cent. A special purpose trust held the remaining 7 per cent.

The company floated voluntary retirement scheme for employees, reducing the number of people on rolls from 18,000 to 3,500. Every employee was given 300 shares with a face value of Rs 10. In 2013, Tata Global Beverages increased its stake in KDHPL by 10.59 per cent, making it an associate company, with significant influence in deciding operating and financial policies. The sub-leasing deal with KDHP covers 30 years, which means that Tata could legally resume the land, ten years from now.

When Tata replicated the model in the North-East to form Amalgamated Plantations Pvt Ltd (APPL), the World Bank took close to 19 per cent stake in it through its investment subsidiary International Finance Corporation. A report by the Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute indicted APPL for violating labour and plantation laws and forcing workers to purchase shares.

The report said APPL was complicit in keeping wages low and blamed the management for offsetting even small raises by assigning higher work quotas and for unjust paycheck deductions. The low cash wages supplemented with housing and social benefits placed the workers and their families in a relationship of total dependence on the plantation.

A visit to any of the labour lines provided by KDHPL in Munnar to their "share-holder" employee will lay bare the farce of social benefits. Every line house - a one bed-room+kitchen enterprise - houses a minimum of 7 to 8 people. The ill-maintained lines built in the 1940s have asbestos for roof and toilet pits that overflow every two months, indicating flagrant violations of the Plantation Labour Act.

"We are like slaves only," said Malarkodi, a 38-year-old who started working at Kanan Devan plantations at the age of 10. While the low salaries and inflation they experience in the hill resort town of Munnar, where a noon meal cannot be had for less than Rs 60, what continues to pain her deeply is the difference with the company treats workers and staff. That outrage was written all over the slogans voiced by the agitating workers. Providing Tamil medium education for their wards, while children of their managers get coached in English medium is surely something no parent can digest. The class difference also extends to healthcare.

But something must have changed, surely. After all tea garden workers in literate Kerala have the strongest of unions. And its 68 years since India shook off the colonial yoke. "Yes, there is change. No one gets beaten up anymore. Also the kankani has a new name - Supervisor" said Samivel, a 58-year-old who took voluntary retirement from his job as the lowest link in the supervisory chain.

The estates, according to him, abound in ill-treatment and abuse. The women live the hardest lives. Their days start early at four in the morning because they have the household chores to manage - cooking and the washing, packing lunches for school-going kids, the milking of cows and other errands before they set out for work as early as six. On most days, it's a long winding path - an up-hill trek of several kilometres, before they can reach their assigned places. If they are late, they would be asked to go home. "We would sometimes allow them in because we know their plight, but it's a huge risk. The field assistants or assistant managers could snitch on us and we would be served notices," said Samivel.

The cropped bushes on the contour-planted slopes look rhythmic and sensuous on tourist brochures. But the tea pluckers are considered human chattel, galley slaves to be abused if their hands slacken.

"There is no specific time for breakfast. They will be fed tea and snack on the go," Samivel said. And if someone takes time off for small talk or dare to stretch their limbs or go for a pee, the supervisors breathe down their neck.

"Cut and go, cut and go, that’s the phrase we were trained to yell at them,” said Samivel, a man with guilt and fear written on his eyes.

Binu Karunakaran is a journalist from Kochi. Twitter @litemeter

Alsor Read

A Green Blood Women's Revolution In Munnar 
By Binu Mathew


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