September 27, 2015

Munnar Tea Plantations Strike:Some Facts

Elamaram Kareem

THE strike by the workers of Kanan Devan Hills Plantations (Tatas) in Munnar has sparked heated discussions. Vested interests widely propagated that the strike was against trade unions. A few monopoly media, as usual, has used this opportunity to castigate the Left politics and Left-affiliated trade unions. Media oraginsations that usually ignore and mock at workers’ agitations were enthusiastic to describe even minute details of the Munnar strike. This is neither due to their love for the working class nor sentiments against the capitalist exploitation of the workers.

Just before the Munnar strike, the working class in India launched a historic strike on September 2. It has so far been the largest strike against the neo-liberal policies of the Government of India. Although BMS withdrew from the strike, on pressure from the RSS, just before the action day, this in no way affected the national strike. The monopoly media including many from Kerala tried to tarnish the national strike. Small inconveniences a few individuals faced were magnified in colourful terms and were posed against the strike. Just like the Munnar workers’ demand, the national strike also demanded Rs 500 as minimum wages a day. The corporate media accuses the organised struggles against capitalist state policies while it encourages some of the non-unionised spontaneous strikes whole-heartedly. Why do they do it? It is meant only to weaken the organised workers’ movements. The workers in the state have time and again experienced this wicked game of media houses in Kerala.


What Happened in Munnar

The salary of plantation workers in the state is decided by the Plantation Labour Committee. PLC comprises representatives of trade unions, plantation managements, and the government. PLC meeting and discussion is possible only if the labour minister takes the initiative. The wages of the plantation workers were last revised on May 22, 2011. The tenure of this wages was decided to be three years. The wages were to be revised by December 31, 2014. Nine months have elapsed since then. The labour minister did not initiate meetings of PLC to take decision on the revision of the wages. An agreement on this was delayed as a result of this.

Plantation labourers are comparatively a low-paid section among the workers. According to the last revision, they were paid the following wages: Tea Plantations Rs 232; Rubber Rs 317; and Cardamom Rs 267. Housing facilities provided by companies to tea, rubber and cardamom plantation workers in the eastern ranges of Kerala are deplorably poor. The workers are provided with a tent called ‘laya’, which is unacceptable as far as a civilived society is concerned. Medical care the plantation workers get and educational facilities for their children are inadequate. These sufferings have created great dissatisfaction among the plantation workers.

In spite of this, the wage revision was delayed. Revised wages were to be implemented on January 1, 2015; but regarding this the plantation management took a negative attitude in PLC. They shamelessly proposed an increase of just RS 10 in daily wages of the workers. Even this increase would be given only workload and production increased. The government has doled out favours to the plantation owners and management, but it could not exert pressure upon the management for a just decision on the wage revision.

When the wage revision was delayed indefinitely, the CITU organised a Secretariat March in July and a strike at the state level in plantations for one day on August 20. No other organisation came forward with any direct action. The CITU strike had a good response from the workers. It was after this strike that the government decided to convene a meeting of PLC on September 26. At this stage the question of bonus for 2014-15 came to the fore. The management in Munnar estate summoned a meeting of trade unions and made a unilateral declaration of 10 per cent bonus to the workers. Last year, the bonus was 19 per cent. During 2014-15 also, the company had earned a good profit. Why did it reduce the bonus rate? The question was not satisfactorily answered at all. CITU did not approve this decision of the management. It, in fact, had decided not to receive the bonus. The other unions too did not have a different opinion.

In protest against the decision, the workers started a slow-down strike. The management informed the workers that the slowing down of the work would amount to a strike and that it would lock out the plantations. The trade unions, in this background, decided to stop the slow-down strike and the workers were informed of this decision. CITU planned to launch a struggle against the reduction of the bonus. The delay in the wage revision and the reduction of the bonus enraged the workers. All employees the plantation sector had participated in the national strike on September 2. From September 3 onwards, all workers in the sector went on a strike demanding an immediate decision on their wages and bonus. The anti-labour attitude of the Tata management and the casual attitude of the government aggravated the situation. It is this that a few media described as anti-trade union struggle.


Media Propaganda

Three days passed on with the plantation workers on strike. It is only after a lapse of three days that the media concentrated in Munnar. After this, the people were given a sort of information according to the script the media had prepared. CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyery Balakrishnan visited the venue of the strike and offered whole-hearted support to the workers. The workers jubilantly hailed this promise and applauded. Party leaders including MP Sreemathy Teacher, Shailaja Teacher and Josephine also visited the strike venue. On September 13, Leader of the Opposition in Kerala Assembly V S Achuthanandan visited the striking workers. VS remained with the workers until the strike was called off.

In the meantime, discussions were going on for a resolution to the issue. Leaders of Kannan Devan Estate Workers’ Unions participated in these discussions at Ernakulam and Thiruvananthapuram. CITU state secretary KO Habeeb also actively participated in the deliberations. In all these discussions, the CITU had firmly demanded 20 per cent bonus to the plantation workers. The claim that CITU leaders had not gone to the venue of the strike is totally baseless. It is also not true that the workers did not allow political leaders and trade union leaders at the venue. The women employees who were very active in the strike had said to the media that CPI(M) and the CITU leaders had helped them. An agreement could be reached because there was intervention by trade union and political leaders. The media concealed all these facts while they unleashed an anti-Left propaganda.

Why did papers like Malayala Manorama which usually opposes all labour struggles take a favourable attitude towards the Munnar strike? Manorama was very much disturbed when the September 2 strike in fact became a ‘hartal’ in Kerala. The routine argument of Malayala Manorama is that the main hindrance to development is labour strike. In spite of this, it praised the Munnar strike! It has only one reason, and that is it invented a loophole to accuse the trade union movement. The monopoly media do not miss any opportunity to tarnish and weaken the organised workers’ movement.


Alappuzha Strike

While the Munnar strike was on, the coir factory workers of Alappuzha was on an indefinite strike. It was a joint strike led by all trade unions. The strike, which started on September 4, reached at a settlement on September 14. According to the agreement, the minimum daily wages of the workers was raised to Rs 500. Twenty thousand workers took part in this struggle. No monopoly media turned its eyes to Alappuzha to report this strike. Manorama has no prick of conscience to report that the cashew industry would perish if the cashew workers struck work for an increase of their wages.


Mavoor Experience

When the Gwalior Ryons, Mavoor, was operating, the Right-wing media had a leading role in attacking the workers’ organisations if they went on any strike. At one stage a former Naxalite leader formed a new TU, named GROW, on the plea that the exiting trade unions do not reflect the real aspirations of the workers. Bourgeois media houses were all praise for this GROW and described its leader as “the liberator of the workers and GROW was described as the “real TU”. The media made a nation-wide propaganda of this. But where is GROW now? What is now the fate of the Bombay Trade Union organised by Datta Samant who opposed all national Trade Unions? The media described the Munnar strike a Jasmine Revolution. Do they want the Munnar workers have the same fate as that of the Jasmine Revolution?


Struggles the Media Didn’t See

The monopoly media generally shut their eyes towards workers’ struggles. There have been a number of strikes after the Congress-led UDF came to power in Kerala. Kerala has been a hot bed of struggles during the current UDF regime. The coir workers, head load workers, cashew workers, handloom workers, beedi workers, construction workers, lottery workers, motor workers, KSRTC employees, FACT employees, Cochin Port employees, Ankanvadi and Asha workers, besides the government employees and teachers were all on strike on various occasions during current UDF regime. The media are now all praise for the Munnar strike; why were they silent on all these strikes?

The workers in Kerala have gained all their achievements through bitter struggles led by trade unions. In the history of the working class movement of Munnar, we have the stories of martyrdom of Hassan Ravuthar and Pappa Ammal who sacrificed their lives for the working class. It is trade unions that lead struggles against neo-liberal policies of successive governments. The capitalist forces and the media under their control want to weaken this organised movement. CITU has all along stood beside the workers. The workers who participated in the Munnar strike have no complaint whatsoever against the leaders of CITU or CPI(M). Still, we will introspect as to what led to the Munnar strike. CITU will approach each and every employee with self-confidence and optimism. Standing firm with the workers, CITU will fight for a fair wage of Rs 500 a day, for better residential facilities and for better medical care.

In the revision of the wages of the plantation workers, the Government of Kerala has been showing a really criminal apathy. It is unfortunate that the labour minister is advocating against an increase in wages even more loudly and strongly than the management. For whom do the companies that deny timely wages to the workers exist? They are exempted from the Land Reforms Act, they have got hold of thousands of acres of land from the government, and they exploit the forest resources for their own benefit only; but they give away only meagre wages to their employees. This practice cannot be allowed to continue. All workers in the state should be ready to fight for just and adequate wages for all employees who are forced to work for such meagre wages. (END)