ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Munnar: Through the Lens of Political Ecology

Munnar: Through the Lens of Political Ecology

The workers of the tea plantations of Munnar cannot bank on a future based on rising wages. A critical discussion of the history of settlement, plantations and accumulation in the region suggests that they need to acquire a share in the income from ecologically-sensitive tourism and from a tea that has a brand and therefore higher value, as also from better education in institutions established under corporate social responsibility activities.

The tea workers’ strike in Munnar was called off in October. With the registered trade unions agreeing to a hike of 30% in daily wages, the new all-women trade union, which was kept off from the meeting of the Plantation Labour Committee (PLC) held on 14 October on grounds of not being a registered union, was forced to agree to the hike, though the demand put forth jointly was for a hike of 115%. The presently agreed daily wage of Rs 301 is lower than the wages in rubber and cardamom plantations. It is about 40% lower than that of women harvest workers in Kerala’s rice-fields and compares unfavourably with the wages prevailing in the adjoining Tamil districts. True, the tea garden workers are entitled to facilities like housing and healthcare as mandated by the Plantations Labour Act, 1951. Even in the Munnar gardens, where these are somewhat fairly implemented, these add up in monetary terms to only Rs 436 per day and do not offset the low, daily take-home wage. Reportedly, the recent wage agreement also comprises an in-principle increase in work, from 21 to 25 kg in the daily quantity of tea leaves to be plucked.

The workers’ demand for a mere 1 percentage point increase from the previous year’s bonus of 19% to 20% of the annual wage had been rejected at the outset. The management reasoned that net profit had fallen to one-fourth of the previous year. The bonus is now fixed at the minimal 8.33%. To compensate, an ex gratia allowance, which, added to the bonus, ensures earnings equivalent to 20% of the annual wage, was announced at the PLC meeting of 13 September. The women’s union was not aware of the crucial difference between the previous year’s bonus and the mandatory bonus being benchmarks. Nor were they told of this by other striking unions or the activist-intellectuals who participated in the struggle. The government recognised the workers’ demand for wage hike as fair but was even more sympathetic to the management’s plea of inability to pay due to slump in the industry. It is now considering a slew of sops to the plantation industry, including reducing plantation tax by 30%, lowering agricultural income tax to bring it at par with the central rate, and subsidised power for irrigation. The tax burden on the people is bound to increase. The resolution of the present conflict was another “brokering” success of the Congress-led state cabinet. If we go by the media, a win-win situation—but the wins are unequally distributed, with workers receiving the least. The unfair outcome to workers, however, does not, in any way depreciate the historic significance of the struggle of the women’s collective.

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