Gender Column - Women workers in Tea Plantations and trade unions

Sujata Gothoskar

Tea plantations: context

The tea industry in Indiais one of the oldest industries and one of the largest employers in the organized sector. Over 12 hundred thousand permanent and almost the same number of casual and seasonal, workers are employed in the tea industry. Over 50 per cent of the workers, and in some operations like tea plucking, over 80 per cent of the workers, are women.

Relations on the plantations:

There are broadly four categories of personnel on the plantations – management, staff, sub-staff and workers. But the workers who work on the plantation comprise the bulk of the workforce of the plantation. The ‘field workers’ are engaged in plucking and activities related to the maintenance of the plantation and the bushes. These include hoeing, weeding, pruning, drainage, spraying of pesticides and insecticides, etc. Nearly all of thismost difficult and hazardous work,involving carrying very heavy loads,is performed by women workers. Women carry more than 40 kgs of green leaf on their backs every day for years since they are very young, and later whether they pregnant or old. 

Over 90 per cent of the tea workers are either Scheduled Tribes or Scheduled Castes – the lowest in the caste, ethnicity, class and resource hierarchy. Most of the families of the workers have been forcibly or fraudulently brought to the tea gardens several generations ago.

The work of tea workers is arduous in addition to being low paid and insecure. Tea pickers are on their feet all day with heavy baskets on their backs, often on uneven terrain and in harsh weather conditions. Injuries are common, as are respiratory and water-borne diseases. There is often exposure to pesticides and insecticides, which the ILO cites as one of the major health and safety hazards tea workers face.

The Picture of Industrial Relations in the Tea Industry:

Tea plantations have employed women as pluckers since the inception of the tea industry. In the initial period, there was a great deal of family labour. The 15th session of the Indian Labour Conference in 1957 decided that the formula for fixing minimum wages for an adult worker should be based on the costs of three units of consumption. The employers in the tea industry argued that since employment was family based, the ratio of 1:3 was too high and only 1.5 units of consumption should be taken into account for fixing minimum wages.

It is a matter of grave concern and an interesting point of research how the employers have been able to keep the wages of tea workers abysmally low, even over six decades of legislative provisions. The wage of the majority of tea workers is less than US$ 2 per day in large parts of the country and would come within the definition of extreme poverty. Tea is an example of a sector where several generations of workers have been kept in systematic poverty, despite almost all of them being members of unions. These conditions have drastically and systematically worsened in the last ten years.  

All these factors contribute to the skewed structure of `rewards’ in global the tea industry, as the War on Want report[1] brings out:

53% retailer (e.g. supermarket)

33%   blender (e.g.Typhoo, Tetley)

7%   factory

6%   trader/buying agent

1%     tea auction/broker

<1%   tea picker

It is obvious that this structure and system is unjust and perpetuates and deepens the anomaly of hard work, especially that of women, being undervalued on the one hand and branding and marketing ruling the roost on the other. Taking on this structure and system and reversing it is a challenge to institutions and processes that seek justice and equity in the tea industry.

Collective bargaining and the Right to organize:

Trade unions were almost non-existent in the tea plantations till Independencein 1947, while there were large sections of workers like the textile workers, port and docks, manufacturing etc. where trade unions were relatively strong. On the other hand, the employers were very well organized for a long time – as early as 1859. This Association was formed with the intention of regulating the supply of indentured labour. It was instrumental in the enactment of repressive legislation like the Workmen’s Breach of Contract Act.

Over the years, however, the majority of workers came to be members of one trade union or the other. Most unions in India, including those in the tea plantations, are affiliated to and controlled by political parties. What this means for workers, their wages, and their rights is a different matter, given that the wages are possibly the lowest in the so-called organized sector.

Though women workers constitute the majority of the workforce, most top level leadership consists of men. The higher level positions in the union are generally occupied by non-(tea) worker male leaders, mainly middle-class men. Either there are no elections, or elections are held which tend to be uncontested, and the same (male) leaders get elected over and over again. This could be one of the reasons why a vicious cycle of ineffective trade unions and non-representation of the interests of the majority of workers exists and this surely needs to be addressed. 

Worker control over unions and the role of women workers:

However, one of the main impediments for this structure to change is that the people who control trade unions and those who ultimately sign settlements and agreements are not tea workers themselves, leave alone women workers. Those who have over the years signed the meagre wage increases and the massive work loads are not the women pluckers themselves.

A look at the gender compositions of trade union leadership in tea plantations shows that women constitute over 50% of the workforce and union members, and that in many cases women make up about 40% of the Union Committee members. However, in terms of decision-making in union policies and participation in negotiations, it is almost 100% men. In most unions relatively unimportant positions are given to women, often reserved for women workers. These are for example Joint Secretary, Joint Vice-President etc.

Whether it is availability of water or safe housing or provision of PPEs for spraying, it is only when workers who are actually affected by the issue have a say in the negotiations that things will change for the better.

Our experience as women activists in tea as well as other sectors has been that legal literacy, trade union consciousness, awareness of workers’ rights, human rights and women’s rights are important elements of training. However, actual participation in negotiations with managements and government officials is the main aspect that gives workers confidence and makes management less complacent to deal with trade unions.

Violence against women in the family / home, in the community, at the workplace -- from domestic violence to sexual assault and harassment -- is usually not discussed in negotiations, although women workers do experience them very frequently. These are issues that are not considered union issues. However, when women workers come together, discussion on violence against women in different areas of life is almost inevitable as women workers locate violence as one of the major reasons for their continual disempowerment.

What seems crucial for any long-lasting changes in workers’ lives and their empowerment is that the leadership is truly representative of workers, especially women workers, who constitute the majority in this sector. For this to actually take place on the ground, regular, free and fair elections at different levels of the unions are needed.

Similarly, given the history of this sector, its workforce and its indentured nature, and the history of the unions, what is crucial is that workers, especially women, be given trade union training. This could begin with functional literacy and numeracy, legal literacy, Know Your Rights training and negotiations training. Some all-women training sessions would greatly facilitate this process.

In a process that the Progressive Tea Workers’ Union (PTWU), a new union in West Bengaland IUF began in April 2010, a series of workshops were organized where over a 100 women from about 30 tea plantations participated. All the women workers had participated in several struggles and in the process of organizing.

The issues focused upon were:

  • Why a women worker activists meeting?
  • Maternity Benefits Act
  • PlantationLabour Act
  • Why is women's leadership in trade unions necessary – for women and for trade unions?
  • What is an independent trade union? 

This resulted in a process whereby women workers from different plantations and also different ethnic groups began meeting and looking at common issues, including questioning the union on why women are not represented in their committees. This is a new beginning and an ongoing process.

 

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