A quarter century of plucking tender tea leaves in the misty mountain slopes of Munnar has left her hands wrinkled, skin leathery and face weather-beaten. She is lean and dark; and, at 47, looks older than her age. But, Lissie Sunny’s smile is confident and her voice clear. There is a quiet dignity about her manners. She is the public face of the recent ‘jasmine revolution’ in the tea gardens. In September, Sunny and other women workers at the Tata-controlled Kanan Devan Tea Company led a revolt that sent shock waves among members of the ‘trade union mafia’ that controls Munnar’s tea plantations. In an unprece-dented act that baffled both trade unions and the management, thousands of women tea-leaf pluckers led a successful nine-day strike for a higher bonus. The strike received wide support from mainstream Kerala society and evoked keen interest among tea workers in Assam, Darjeeling, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Its success is seen as rejection of the trade unions and the political class. Many saw in it the emergence of a new trade union culture and a hope for plantation workers across the country.
In an interview to BusinessLine , Sunny, who has just been formally elected President of the women tea workers’ organisation Pompilai Orumai, talks about the ‘treachery and exploitation’ of the trade unions and also about the Orumai’s decision to contest the November 5 local body elections.
Are you planning to launch a formal trade union?
Yes, we will get registered as a trade union within a month. A formal union is necessary to get us access to the negotiations between the plantation managements and the labour unions where others take decisions on our work and wages. During the 17-day strike by the joint council of recognised trade unions, which we also supported later on, we were not even invited to the six rounds of talks called by the government. These unions had gone on strike demanding a daily wage of ₹500 (for workers of tea, rubber and cardamom plantations). But finally, at the negotiations, they agreed for just ₹301 (for tea workers) without even consulting us. This was outright treachery. The government, the plantations managements and the unions colluded to cheat us. The unions also agreed to raise the minimum quantum of tea leaves to be picked from 21 kg to 25 kg.
You seem to be extremely angry with the recognised trade unions. Why?
These unions have been cheating us workers for generations. They have a mutual-help relationship with the Kanan Devan management. The leaders lead a cosy life; get free company houses to live in; their children study at the company school and also get nice jobs in the company. The company has given some 30 houses to the leaders of the AITUC (the majority union) and INTUC, while we workers live in dilapidated one-room labour quarters. The company claims it gives everything free to workers, but the fact is we have to pay. Our strike was not only against the Kanan Devan company, but also against the unions. During wage negotiation meetings, the union leaders would agree to paltry raises. They get several benefits in return for compromising on wages and workers’ welfare.
Your strike is a historical one in Kerala’s highly unionised work culture. How did it begin?
It was a spontaneous agitation. We were told that this year the bonus would be lower than last year’s and we knew that the trade unions would agree to it. You know, for a woman tea worker, the bonus is such an important thing. She plans one year in advance what to buy, and what loans to be repaid, with the bonus money. When she is told that the bonus would be a half the anticipated quantum, it upsets her totally. We decided that come what may, we would strike work for a bonus of 20 per cent. On the first day, there were very few people ready to strike. But from day two, thousands of women workers, risking everything, including their husbands’ ire and joined us on the street. They had passion, anger, grief.
How did the unions react?
They were totally nervous. They were afraid that they would lose their relevance. They threatened us, assaulted us, harassed us, blockaded us, and even asked the shops in Munnar town not to give provisions to the striking workers. They threatened the workers’ husbands. But, the entire Kerala society stood by us. And, when our bonus strike succeeded, the unions, in order to show their dominance, came together to launch an indefinite strike to demand ₹500 as daily wage.
What is the lesson from the Pompilai Orumai strike?
That workers should unite for their rights. We achieved a lot with our strike. It gave us confidence, it empowered us. Even the wage hike is the after-effect of our strike for bonus. We called the bluff of these politically-backed trade unions. Trade union leaders are only interested in their own welfare, not of ours.
Why is Orumai contesting the local body polls?
Pompilai Orumai has put up independent candidates in five Gram Panchayats in Munnar. If we win, we will do our best to secure all government benefits for the tea workers’ community.