For once, the praise of the mainstream media in Kerala does not sound like empty hyperbole or sickening sycophancy. More than six thousand women workers were on strike in the Kannan Devan tea estates of Munnar in defiance of their trade union leaders, seeking higher wages — and equal wages with men workers who are paid more though their work is lighter — and alleging that the trade union leaders were pocketing benefits due to them. The workers receive very low wages and live under truly despicable conditions not far removed from colonial conditions despite the fact that the Kannan Devan Plantations in now technically under the workers who own sixty per cent of the shares. The blather about losses in the tea industry conceals the enormous control over land that the Tatas hold for a trivial sum paid to the government. It also deflects attention from the serious charges of encroachment made against the Tatas, which our political class has not pursued much.
While the usual patriarchal tactics of delegitimisation — the accusation of ‘Maoist influence’ or some other force ‘behind’ the striking workers — was indeed made in the early days of the strike, it is clear that now there is a genuine sense of wonder in much of mainstream media’s reaction to the massive show of independence and strength by the women workers of the tea plantations at Munnar, and the gains they have made. The utterly patriarchal trade union leadership in Kerala has been rightly shamed when the women proved that they did not need them at all to mobilize and press for their demands. Indeed, this is a key message — women have often constituted overwhelming majorities in Kerala’s power trade unions, especially in the traditional industries but have never been a force in the leadership or consulted seriously in shaping the union’s priorities or policies. The Munnar struggle thus falls like a thunderous slap on the cheek on Kerala’s highly patriarchal history of trade unionism. It also brings to light one of Kerala’s most deprived development minorities — the plantation workers — who have been neglected mainly because they are of Tamil-origin, mostly lower-caste and to a certain extent, spatially confined.
Further, it allows us a chance to reflect on the manner in which mainstream development and politics shut its eyes to the reality of women labourers in Kerala who were ever-more overworked and underpaid, in not just the older labour regimes but the new ones too. The gender of the workers in the new industries was hardly noticed even. I still remember how a sincere and hard-working young student who wanted to study labour regimes in Kerala came to me some six or seven years back.”Gender is going to be important,” I told her. She shook her head in agreement politely, but it was clear to me that it wasn’t obvious to her at all. After a few months in which she toured her field, she returned and told me that gender was, indeed, absolutely central to her work — the workers she met in the new post-liberalization workplaces were largely low-paid, overworked women, and women who were unfamiliar with or distrusting of, trade unions and unionisation.
Labouring women were almost completely invisibilised in post-1990 Kerala, and in their place, the active woman recipient of welfare -the SHG Woman – was endlessly discussed. Neoliberal welfare stressed economic security for women through self-help, and the question of equal pay for equal work, equality and fairness in working conditions, and many other such socialist feminist slogans seemed abandoned in the all-round enthusiasm for promoting self-help -to such an extent that women’s self-exploitation when it happened in governance labour and microenterprise was overlooked. The work that women did with the panchayats – which ought to have been counted as governance and provisioning labour – remained invisible to everyone including politicians and development bureaucrats. I can’t help remembering how irritated many of them were when in 2008 I reported the findings from fieldwork in 2006-7, about how Kudumabshree women were being used as poorly-paid governance and provisioning labour. This was perceived as an attack on the Kudumbashree.Women workers began to fade out as the figure of the self-employed woman grew began to be etched in the public imagination as epitomising the bold public woman. This hid the fact that the dividing line between the woman worker and the woman recipient of welfare was actually quite fluid and that the Kudumbashree woman was indeed engaged in newer forms of labour — governance labour and provisioning labour besides care work and productive labour — that were invisible and underpaid. Indeed, many senior organizers of the state-supported Kudumbashree self-help group network, who had entered and gained experience in public life as trade union workers, seemed to have forgotten all of their past and attributed their knowledge and self-confidence to Kudumbashree.
Perhaps that said something about the woeful little space that the trade unions have granted women workers, even as it revealed the ideological efficacy of self-help campaigns. Indeed the shameful responses of the local trade union leaders, all men, about the women’s struggle at Munnar there does is evidence. But sooner or later, the kind of desperation and determination that we saw in the struggle at Munnar will surface elsewhere for sure, and the trade unions better prepare for the inevitable. The women workers said that they aim at forming an all-women trade union. And in their struggle they were supported by all kinds of people, including policemen.
However, when decisive institutional change allowed the the redoing of the relation between the Kudumbashree and the panchayats in 2008, some of the Kudumbashree women challenged their exploitation by rising to becoming local leaders – not universally, for sure, but in pockets, definitely -they were criticised as moving away from livelihood activities into showy public life, and of being ‘arrogant’ and ‘politically ambitious’. And they were clearly confined to gender identities by political parties which sought to organise them: women in self help groups were organised not as workers but as ‘women’, under the AIDWA. This is despite the fact that Kudumbashree women have been open to embracing the identity of the worker, as was evident in a number of instances in which they did organise as ‘Kudumbashree workers’ (in the Thiruvananthapuram city sanitation issue, for instance).
The Munnar women workers’ struggle indicates that while poor women and their interests cannot be reduced to the poor in general and their interests, the latter today is unimaginable without the former. Or, one cannot really appeal to the poor and the oppressed in Kerala without appealing to women. It is surely not a coincidence that the struggle against predatory capital and the destruction of common resources through ecological and other struggles here are often initiated by women even if they are taken over later by men. And it is not for the first time that women have distrusted men and the male leadership in struggles that they took a lead in – I remember activists who were part of the anti-sand mining struggle around the Muriyad lake telling me how the women there were unwilling to hand over the struggle to a male leadership because they feared that the men would enter into agreements that suited them and the leadership and forget all about the issue at the heart of their struggle. While this struggle does not open directly an opportunity to end the conflict between plantation workers and the landless poor we have been witnessing in twenty-first century Kerala, it certainly allows for a reconsideration of the assumed gap between them. This struggle shows the extent to which plantation labour experience extreme deprivation, an experience shared by the landless poor — in the face of the fact that big capital that controls plantations has in its hands very extensive government lands, which it holds at almost no cost. It appears clear, then, that the plantation labour may find it better to build alliances with the landless poor than serve big capital, however indirectly, through their hostility towards ‘encroachmment’ by the latter. Perhaps women workers will see this better than the men?
The formation of women’s trade unions here — SEWA Kerala and Penkoottu — indicates a trend. But even after the Munnar struggle, it appears that women will not be part of formal negotiations with the government — and outcomes are not certain despite all the celebrations. But the writing on the wall is clear for anyone who has the eyes to see. And dare I hope a little more, that these plantation workers will transform themselves into a people’s movement, allying with the landless poor in Kerala and infuse new life into the nearly-dead the politics of welfare by reinterpreting the politics of public action?