It was a show of strength Kerala is unlikely to forget in the near future. At a time when political parties find it difficult to mobilise people, thousands of women labourers converged in Munnar, the tea town in Kerala’s Idukki district, from plantations miles apart to express their anger and disgust with their bosses and leaders. The women were their own leaders. The unrest caught the trade union leaders, who consider the plantations their fief, unawares. The smarter ones sensed the anger and kept their distance. The odd leader who tried to appropriate the struggle faced the full fury of the women. When state leaders from the plains tried an outreach, they were sternly told to stay away. Left and right, communist and Congress, no party was spared.
The political mainstream clearly had no idea about the bitterness brewing in the plantations. Nine days later, the government and management of Kanan Devan Hills Plantations (KDHP) sued for peace as civil society rallied behind the women. Politicians, conscious of the impending local bodies election, swallowed their pride and declared solidarity. A few women, leaders never before, represented the workforce at the talks. The union leaders signed the deal the women had negotiated. A higher bonus was agreed upon, and further negotiations promised higher wages and better work conditions. KDHP is unique because workers are part owners in this Tata associate company, but reports point to women workers organising in private plantations in the region as well.
Two aspects of the Munnar mobilisation need to be recognised. One, the protesters openly stressed the gender aspect of the mobilisation — Pembila Orumai (Unity of Women) is how they called themselves. Two, the protesters were part of the organised sector and members of trade unions including the AITUC (affiliated to CPI), INTUC (Congress) and CITU (CPM). Both aspects indicate a departure from the dominant political narrative of Kerala. The women were discovering agency and identifying trade unions as a male preserve, a trend increasingly visible in women dominated work sectors. It also exposed the patriarchal nature of the state’s trade union politics.
Trade unions have played a seminal role in building modern Kerala. The many labour struggles from the 1930s onwards, situated around specific sectors, not only ensured better wages and other rights of workers, but also influenced the state to build sector-specific welfare programmes including healthcare, scholarships for students of workers, and pensions. That politics seems to have run its course.
There have been a series of strikes in the state in recent times for women, and led by women. Mainstream trade unions were not involved in these, or only had a supporting role to offer. For instance, textile shop floor workers demanding better working hours, nurses’ strike in private hospitals for decent wages, unorganised sectors workers in Kozhikode demanding the right to sit during work hours, etc., were all successful struggles that followed innovative mobilisational strategies, and were led by women from the workforce and from outside the traditional unions.
The emergence of the woman worker conscious of her agency is also the outcome of changes in Kerala’s economy. The sectors that saw largescale unionisation in the past — agriculture, cashew processing, the coir industry, handloom, etc. — have shrunk. These sectors employed women in large numbers, and their fate is reflected in the decline of women in work participation in Kerala — 15.4 per cent, which is less than the national average of 22 per cent. Sectors like retail trade, private healthcare and education that expanded in the past few decades absorbed women in significant numbers. This mass of unorganised workers are paid low wages — in the range of Rs 2,500 to Rs 12,000 depending on the place and nature of employment — and work on deplorable terms and conditions. Literature shows that in contrast to the women’s domination of the low-paying unorganised services, better-paying primary and tertiary sectors like agriculture and construction are attracting workers from outside Kerala. Women seem to prefer low paying services jobs for social factors, or opt to sit at home.
The unrest among these unorganised workers, predominantly women, is now palpable, and new leaders are emerging. Viji, a runner with a mobile firm in Kozhikode is one example. She heads Penkoottam (Crowd of Women), a pioneering union of unorganised sector workers set up in 2009 with over 6,000 members. Penkoottam members include workers drawn from private healthcare and anganwadis, shop floor assistants, and unaided teachers. The union has been highlighting issues like long work hours, absence of restrooms, ban on textile shop assistants from sitting during work hours, etc. Viji stresses on the unique character of the woman worker, who comes to work after slogging at home. She believes that the established trade unions are male preserves, and hence insensitive to the specific concerns of women workers. The women in established trade unions have no voice within the unions and their issues are rarely addressed, Viji says. She sees the tea workers’ strike as a landmark struggle that needs to recognised for its gender aspect. It is only an indication of the women workforce coming into their own to fight for their rights, she says.
The rise of the woman worker needs to be read closely with the status of women in Kerala. In development indices like literacy, maternal mortality rate, etc., the Kerala woman is ahead of women elsewhere. But gender indices like wages, low work participation, role in political office, occupational segregation, and high recorded rates of crime tell a different story, points out Neeta N Pillai, a senior fellow at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies. Among Kerala’s 140 MLAs, there are only seven women. This is when there is high women’s participation in livelihood and environment struggles. The writing is on the wall for Kerala’s male-dominated political leadership.