Five years on from the women’s unity uprising, is anyone listening?

Five years on from the women’s unity uprising, is anyone listening?
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Five years ago today I stood outside my Dad’s old office – the Headquarters Office of the Kanan Devan Hill Plantation (KDHP) company in my birthplace, Munnar – and witnessed the Pempilai Orumai  (Unity of Women) uprising.

Thousands of women tea workers waving black flags on bamboo poles marched past me chanting slogans demanding that their annual bonus – against which they had taken out loans all year – should not be halved.

They brought both the tea and the tourism industries to a halt for several days by staging a sit-in protest on the main road past the Headquarters office. The bonus issue was just the straw that had broken the camel’s back. Their demands later expanded to include a decent wage, better housing, healthcare and education.

Local and even international media was excited by the story – the plucky working women who took on a multinational and – according to the BBC – “won”. But it was only a partial victory. They got their 20% bonus that year, but it went down the next. Their wages went up a bit, but not nearly as much as they had asked for and only on condition they pluck more tea. They were promised housing improvements – but apparently these have not materialised.

And it was only by raising their own voices that they were heard sufficiently for even these small victories. They had taken to the streets because they felt they just weren’t being heard by their trade unions, their managers or their politicians.

And they soon faded from the headlines.

In the five years that followed, the leaders of the movement – Gomathy Augustine, Lissy Sunny, Rajeshwari and others have been subjected to slander, insult, and even physical violence. But they have not ceased to call for change. They are no longer a unified group, but have variously gone on to form a women only trade union of the same name, to stand for political office, to join political parties and to stage further protest actions. But their voices are still rarely heard by decision-makers.

When I met Rajeshwari – the General Secretary of Pempilai Orumai trade union – last year, she told me they are unable to have direct communication with management.  “We want support to speak to the senior level managers. We can speak to our direct managers, and they often agree with our demands, but their managers don’t listen to them.” With her permission, I passed this on to senior managers who – as I understood it – said they could not talk to Pempilai Orumai because their membership was not big enough to be representative of the workforce and they could only negotiate with the larger unions.

Yet, by all accounts Pempilai Orumai is more genuinely representative of the views of the women tea pluckers than the predominantly male trade union leaders who – one tea company manager (from a different area) told me – are more like the representatives of political parties than of the workforce. One of the chants during the Pempilai Orumai uprising aimed at the trade unions, reports Open Magazine was “Kolunthukutta edukkathu naangalu/ panakkutta amukkathu neengalu (We carry bags of tea/ You hoard bags of money)” Is anybody listening?

Last month, Kerala’s Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, came to Munnar in the aftermath of a lethal landslide at nearby Pettimudi in which over 80 people, many of them tea workers and their families, including children, were killed or injured and lost their homes and possessions. Former Pempilai Orumai leader, Gomathy tried  to be heard demanding land rights for tea workers by stopping the minister’s motorcade. She wanted to tell him that caste discrimination had made the landless Tamil workers in Kerala more vulnerable to the calamity by relegating them to dilapidated houses with no hope of escape from the deluge of mud and rocks. But she could not get him to listen. Instead she was arrested. 

KDHP management denies her claim. Workers say many of the houses – some dating back to the British era – are in a dilapidated condition yet workers are not allowed to build their own houses on the land. Management denies this. Workers say they haven’t recieved compensation or support after the landslide. Management denies this.

It’s easy looking at a situation like this to demonise management and characterise them as wealthy, indifferent monsters, deaf to the suffering cries of the workers who generate their riches. Yes, some can be insensitive and can be too readily complicit with the plantation System’s entrenched social hierarchy that deems it acceptable for families of six to live in two-room houses. And tea company managers across India – even those who, privately, come across as the most genuinely caring and concerned about the plight of their employees – do themselves no favours by publicly sticking to the industry tradition of issuing bald denials when repeated reports of serious problems emerge. And because they seem not to be listening to their workers, we are less inclined to listen to them.

Other companies, like some in the garment sector, have learned that admitting there are problems and trying to solve them earns more respect – and in the long run is better for their business – than repeatedly denying what is obvious for anyone to see. At the very least, they could agree in good faith to sit down with workers and genuinely try to understand what lies behind the complaints.

But remember that they are also part of a deeply conservative industry that is not used to having to communicate with the outside world. A world which has changed dramatically since their industry and its traditions were formed. A world which is not listening to them.

Demand for tea in the global North is falling, supply is growing with the spread of small tea farmers, costs of production are rising, tea prices are stagnant – and climate change and coronavirus preparations are wreaking havoc on harvests… Companies are still legally required to provide their workers’ families with facilities that anywhere else the government would provide; housing, sanitation, healthcare, education. And now people expect them to pay living wages and provide decent housing etc as well.  You don’t have to have an MBA to figure out that this could be somewhat challeging.

They have asked for the government to take up responsibility for schools and hospitals and other utilities on the tea estates. They have asked for a reasonable floor price for tea that enables them to provide better wages and working conditions, but is anyone listening?

Tea company managers are not blameless, but to find the real wealth, and possibly the real indifference, you have to look beyond the plantation. The big money is being made by those that package and sell processed tea – Unilever, Twinings, Tata (which still has a significant stake in KDHP) and the supermarket chains…  Even the consumer who reaches instinctively for the cheapest tea on her supermarket shelf (yes, it is more often than not a woman who does the shopping) is unwittingly complicit in the exploitation of Gomathy and her co-workers. Report after report has emerged about the plight of tea workers over the decades. But does anyone listen? Workers, managers, traders, brands, retailers, consumers – we are all part of the System, and it is the System that is indifferent – that is collectively deaf to the suffering cries of the worker.

Two years ago, after hearing the demands of Pempilai Orumai, I formed THIRST, The International Roundtable for Sustainable Tea. It’s a platform to try to bing together the voices of tea workers and farmers and their representatives, a vehicle for civil society organisations to pool their strengths and work together to help those voices be heard and so reform the System.

Without Gomathy’s mother or grandmother and the other tea workers of my birthplace I would not have had my life, my education and my opportunities. And legions of businessmen, brands and retailers would not have their bottom line. And none of us would have our cherished cups of tea. We owe them. It may take us another five, or fifteen or fifty years to make a dent in the 200 year old System – to make it fairer, more humane and more fit for the 21st century. But I and my fellow civil society activists will keep listening to them, amplifying their voices and shouting in unity with the women of Munnar and Assam and Darjeeling and Kenya and Indonesia and all the other tea growing countries. Will you hear us? Will you join us?