Actor, film-maker, poet and activist Leena Manimekalai says ‘modern slavery’ prevails on the tea plantations of Kerala’s Munnar, where an unprecedented nine-day agitation by thousands of women tea pluckers for higher bonus and wages bypassing organised trade unions recently captured national headlines.

“It is modern slavery backed by casteism and feudalism that prevails on Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Limited tea plantations in Munnar,” Manimekalai told BusinessLine . “More than 90 per cent of the nearly 16,000 workers there are Tamil-speaking Dalits and they are brutally exploited by the caste hierarchy and feudal structures.”

Chennai-based Manimekalai, who was in Munnar recently to express solidarity with the workers’ cause, had extensively interacted with the tea workers. A campaigner for the rights of Dalits and sexual minorities, she has studied the living conditions of tea workers in Sri Lanka. “The majority of workers on plantations across the country are Dalits, while the supervisors and managers are Shudras and the owners Banias,” she noted. “Neo-liberal economic policies are keeping casteism and feudalism alive.”

She said the Munnar upheaval should be viewed against a larger socio-economic context than the immediate issue of wages.

Brought in from Tamil Dalit hamlets in Madurai, Tirunelveli and Kovilpatti four generations ago to tend the British tea plantations, the workers today are still victims of the caste system and its socio-economic impact. They have had little contact with the mainstream Kerala society and are untouched by both the State’s advancements and trade union activism. “I would say that had there been at least 10 per cent Keralite workers, the plantations would have long been closed,” Manimekalai said.

She noted that the women toiled hard in extreme conditions, picked tea leaves for long hours on mountain slopes, and carried heavy bags of tea leaves on their backs. Their families lived in one-room layams provided by the company. Though they were paid a daily wage of ₹232, the monthly take-home of most women, would be around ₹2,000-₹2,500. Their reproductive health is extremely poor and a large number have had to get their uteruses removed. The anti-Dalit bias ensured that their children, even if educated, were denied supervisorial jobs.

Manimekalai alleged that the organised trade unions, particularly those of the Left, had failed to check the Dalit workers’ exploitation and discrimination. “The leaders of the trade unions are all men and corrupt and they work against the interests of the workers.” The women had realised this and that was why they bypassed the unions while opting to go on flash strike.

The actor-writer-activist would like the women workers to go it alone, form a women-only trade union to assert their rights and evolve a leadership line. “They should also raise the land question as they don’t own land even after four generations,” she advocated.