Women in tea plantations in Kerala, India are fighting for decent wages. But they’ve had to fight not just the company, but also the male-dominated unions that are holding them back.

Tea estate workers protest outside the Kannan Devan Hills Plantations office in Munnar. (Source: Indian Express)

Tea estate workers protest outside the Kannan Devan Hills Plantations office in Munnar. (Source: Indian Express)

Women in tea plantations in Kerala, India are fighting for decent wages and conditions. But they’ve had to fight not just their employer, but also the male-dominated unions that are holding them back.

The BBC reports that 6,000 poorly educated women labourers have taken on one of the most powerful companies in the world – and won. The women work on tea estates owned by Kanan Devan Hills Plantations, which is owned by Indian multinational Tata, which owns Tetley tea.

The British end of the supply chain

The British end of the supply chain

The state of Kerala is historically left wing, with a strong union presence and a very influential Communist Party. The tea estates of Kerala have run smoothly up to now, with harmonious relations between plantation owners and unions.

But the women felt that the unions weren’t fighting for them, as they lived in conditions close to bonded labour, living in tin shacks. Indian news website Catch reports that the women saw the established unions as “treacherous” for being having too cosy a relationship with the employers. They also complain that their men drink their wages, and that no investment is made in childcare, education or health.

So they organised.

Unhappy with the representation they were getting from the established unions, the women formed an organisation called Pempilai Orumai, or Women Workers’ Solidarity. The organisation embarked on a sit down strike outside the company headquarters in Munnar to demand a living wage, decent living conditions and the return of a bonus system.

The unions then joined the strike. After nine days, the company gave in to their demands. The male trade union leaders had to swallow their pride and sign the deal the women had negotiated.

Women have had to organise separately in other parts of the world as, where sexism and patriarchy has lead to the double exploitation of women. For instance, Sikhula Sonke is a union that organises women farm workers in South Africa. Recognised as a union by the certification officer, the organisation accepts members from men too, but focus on improving the position of women.


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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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