This International Women’s Day, as the newspapers report that it will take 300 years to reach gender equality, and about the sexual exploitation of women on Kenyan tea plantations (reminding us of similar cases in Malawi a few months ago), it is tempting to focus on the many woes of women working in the tea sector.
After all, they represent a large proportion of the lowest paid workers in the sector. Why? We are often told it’s because their delicate fingers are better at plucking the two tender leaves and a bud that make the best tea, but is it also, as one Dooars tea plucker told me, because “We are easy to boss”?
Women are the least represented in trade unions and management and – all over the world – are made more vulnerable to sexual and domestic abuse by the way the tea industry is structured. More and more tea estates are closing down as tea increasingly becomes a smallholder farmer crop, but – if not handled with care – this phenomenon could increase their vulnerability to oppression of various kinds…
But instead, I want to focus on the strength of women in tea.
Imagine the strength it takes to spend eight hours a day plucking and carrying sacks of tea weighing up to 25 kilos up and down the steep slopes on which tea thrives. Add to that your unpaid work of fetching water, gathering firewood, cooking, cleaning, bathing and dressing children, caring for elders… and walking sometimes several kilometers to get to work in the first place.
Ethnographer, Sarah Besky, has written movingly about the strength of their relationship with the tea bushes that they have often nurtured from seedlings, and that provide them with the means of supporting their families; “Women tea pluckers described themselves as mothers and grandmothers to tea bushes…”.
And in 2015, I witnessed their strength in standing up for their rights as thousands of women tea workers in my birth town of Munnar rose up to protest about their pay and conditions – triggered by a smaller-than-expected bonus that year. The protest – organised via WhatsApp – was the start of a movement that called itself Pempilai Orumai, Unity of Women. What was unique about the protest was that it excluded men – including the trade unions, which the women claimed did not represent them well. (It’s what inspired me to set up THIRST.)
The protest won them some victories – albeit limited and conditional ones – on bonuses and pay. Although those victories were transient (the bonus went down again the next year – THIRST is researching the pressures along the value chain that keep wages and bonuses down), and the leaders of the movement have now gone their separate ways, some to pursue a political career, the protest had lasting impacts. Pempilai Orumai is now a formal trade union – as far as I’m aware the only trade union formed by and for women – the actual women who pluck the tea.
But perhaps even more importantly – it achieved the knowledge (including the women’s own knowledge) of what they are capable of. Of the fact that when women roar, the world listens. Other women listen; the protest triggered movements in the fishing, garment and rubber industries.
Today, I’m back in India and about to interview people across the Southern tea sector about the root causes of tea workers’ and farmers’ problems (as part of the global study). I’m looking forward to meeting the Pempilai Orumai leaders again – to hear how they have been faring since we last met in 2019, what they need, what they have achieved.
And I will have one message for them. Sisters, keep roaring.
And my message to everyone involved in tea – the companies, trade unions, NGOs, media and you, as you start this International Women’s Day with that first magical cup of morning tea – keep listening.
Image: Rajeshwari Jolly, General Secretary Pempilai Orumai. Photo by Sabita Banerji, 2019.