Kerala’s plantation sector has come to a standstill following the agitation of three lakh estate workers demanding that the daily wage be increased from Rs 232 to Rs 500.
The demand has suddenly arisen as a fall-out of the historic agitation of women workers at the Munnar Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Limited (KDHPL), earlier this month. The women workers, who kept away the trade union leaders, had managed to get the KDHPL to reinstate last year’s 20 per cent bonus.
The unprecedented agitation at KDHPL and the partial victoryof the workers, without going through trade union negotiations, has triggered unrest in estates elsewhere in Kerala, particularly in the high ranges.
Inspired by the success of Pembillai Orumai (women unity) in Munnar, estate workers hit the streets, demanding higher wages and bonus. The trade unions, which faced a virtual boycott in the Munnar agitation, stepped into ensure that they are ready to fight for any cause of the estate workers.
Although the government had convened a meeting of representatives of the plantation owners and recognized trade unions, the former could not concede to the demand to raise daily wages to Rs 50O. Owners say that if the daily wage were to be increased to that level, the already troubled plantation sector would wilt. The managements’ main contention is that the estate employees receive many benefits and perks.
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In fact, these benefits and perks have given them a sense of social security. It is this social security that has kept three to four generations of a family grafted to the plantation sector as its daily toiling class.
There is no doubt that the estate workers are the one of the lowest paid segments of employees in Kerala. The wages of casual workers and the semi-skilled have gone up manifold in Kerala in the recent years. A coconut climber, who works for five hours a day, gets an average of Rs 1,250 a day in Kerala. Even a casual worker receives at least Rs 700 daily.
Such employees have disposable incomes at their disposal which has become essential for surviving in Kerala’s consumerist society. It is against this backdrop that the estate workers complain of their low wages, despite the social security.
For the trade unions, this agitation is not about ensuring better wages or facilities for the workers. Instead, they want to guarantee that the workers remain under their fold. Hence, they have agitated the estate workers across Kerala with a tall demand; increase the wage from Rs 232 to Rs 500 is a single swipe. The trade unions’ agitation is also a trap for the “women unity” in Munnar. If they don’t join the agitation, they’would lose its support base. Hence, after staying away from the agitation for three days, the `women unity’ have also joined the indefinite agitation on Wednesday.