The spontaneous agitation by tea estate workers in Munnar, mostly women, that began nine days ago ended on Sunday with the management yielding to their demands to increase bonus.
Hours earlier, opposition leader V S Achuthanandan had joined the agitation, saying he would not leave till the workers’ demand was met. The women workers who had chased away all other political leaders and trade unions which tried to side with them, saying they had been helping the management, had allowed the veteran CPM leader to join their agitation.
Following marathon discussions among stakeholders in Kochi, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said the management of Kannan Devan Hills Plantations (KDHP) Limited had agreed to give 8.33 per cent bonus and 11.67 per cent ex-gratia to workers. The demand for increase in daily wages from Rs 231 to Rs 500 would be addressed by the labour commissioner later.
The 5,000-odd workers had started the sit-in in Munnar last Sunday. KDHP was forced to close down all its factories after the agitation cut off supply of tea leaves.
The strike was embarrassing for Tata Tea as KDHP was held up as a model for making workers feel part of the company. It was formed a decade ago following Tata Tea’s strategy to hand over a chunk of its shares to employees and managers of the estate. However, while a workers’ representative was made the board director, the operations continued to be controlled by the Tatas. Tata Global Beverages also retained the Kannan Devan tea brand and the marketing of the estate’s products.
Currently, the 13,000 workers on KDHP’s rolls, most of them women engaged in plucking tea leaves, hold 68 per cent of the shares, while 18 per cent are held by Tata Tea. The remaining 14 per cent are held by a trust and others.
The cover page of KDHP’s annual report for the last fiscal had noted that it “featured among the 100 best companies to work (by) its employees in India; ranked No. 1 in the category (of) best company for employees’ involvement and participation in India”.
The agitation had begun after the management decided to cut workers’ bonus from 20 per cent to 10 due to the sagging fortunes of the tea industry. A statement by the company said its income had fallen by 68 per cent in 2014-15 from the previous year.
The angry workers later also raised the issue of daily wages. The basic daily pay of an estate worker engaged in plucking tea leaves is Rs 80 to 85. With all benefits, it comes to Rs 231. A worker has to pluck 21 kg of leaves a day to get that pay, plus Rs 1.50 for every extra kilogram of output. On the contrary, estate supervisors get Rs 4 each, staff members Rs 6 each and managers Rs 10 each on every extra kilogram plucked by the worker.
Apart from the demand to increase wages and bonus, the workers also raised the “poor conditions” in the one-room houses allotted to them.
One of the protesting workers said that the claim that “the company belongs to labourers” was an “eye wash”. “We have to pay for every service offered, even Rs 100 so that our cows can graze. Ordinary workers’ children do not get admission in the school run by the company.”
Achuthanandan, who was given a rousing reception by the striking workers on Sunday, said KDHP had no justification to cut the bonus from 20 to 10 per cent.
The welcome was surprising given the insistence by workers, mostly women, to keep out even their own trade union leaders affiliated to the CPI’s AITUC, the Congress’s INTUC and the CPM’s CITU, as they hit the streets of Munnar. In a sector known for its well-oiled trade union system, such an agitation, without the support of trade union leaders, was unheard of.