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The women strike back: the protest of Pembillai Orumai tea workers

Underclass women plantation workers in Kerala, India went on strike against both their union and their company, scoring symbolic and material gains as well as local political representation.

Tea Pickers In Wayanad, India. Steenbergs/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)

In a rare event in the history of labour resistance, 12,000 low caste tea plantation workers in the south Indian state of Kerala went on strike in September 2015 for almost a month. They demanded an increase in daily wages from Rs. 232 to Rs. 500 (£2.50 to £5.17)—matching the basic minimum wage of other manual labour in Kerala—a 20 percent annual bonus, and an improvement in welfare measures, specifically with regard to facilities in the plantation hospital. They also called for an end to the corrupt alliance between the trade union leaders and the plantation companies. The strike attracted worldwide attention for two reasons. First, it was entirely organised and led by women, who constitute around 70 percent of the tea plantation labour force. Second, it was organised autonomously by the workers, keeping the trade unions at bay. What is less well known about the women strikers is that they were Dalits (from the lowest ranking castes), whose ancestors had been imported to the colonial plantations in Kerala from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu as indentured labourers. Fighting the giant multinational plantation company and the mighty trade unions, these Dalit women protesters became known as Pembillai Orumai—Women’s Unity.

The Kerala tea estates—situated in what is known as the Munnar tea belt—had been run for decades by corporate giant Tata Tea Limited. This changed in 2005, when 70 percent of shares were transferred to stakeholders—including the plantation workforce—to form Kannan Deval Hills Plantations Company. This was then claimed to be the largest employee-owned company in the world. However, the striking women workers argue that the new company has actually suspended and/or diluted the welfare measures they were obliged to provide under the plantation labour act of 1951. It was this suspension of welfare measures, alongside the rejection of wage hikes and the corrupt alliance between the trade unions and the plantation company, that eventually led to the women workers to strike.

The strike began on 5 September. The first phase ended eight days later when the company agreed to pay the 20 percent annual bonus, and promised that the Plantation Labour Committee (PLC)—consisting of planters, trade unions and the government—would discuss the wage issue. The strike resumed on 28 September after the PLC failed to reach an agreement. At the same time, the publicity around the Pembillai Orumai triggered other strikes and protests across the tea belt of Kerala during the last half of September. 

Women’s unity beyond the trade unions

The women workers not only went on strike outside of the trade unions, but actively tried to keep the unions out of the strike. Three different trade unions attempted to interject themselves into the events by rallying a subset of the workers to organise a parallel strike a few hundred metres away from the Pembillai Orumai. They requested that the women join them, but Pembillai Orumai refused due to their distrust of the unions’ intentions.

Indeed, the strike itself was triggered by an incident three days before, when the women workers disrupted a meeting organised as part of a union-led, nationwide strike against the ‘anti-labour’ policies of the Indian government. Challenging their legitimacy and claim to moral authority, the women accused the trade union leaders of corruption, claiming that it was they themselves who were ‘anti-labour’. They said that the union leaders had received unacceptable gifts and benefits from the plantation company in return for turning a blind eye to company attempts to squeeze the workers. They also claimed that the trade unions took a six to nine percent cut from the workers’ bonus through a secret agreement with the company, which was to be spent on the upcoming elections. They published a list of union leaders who did not work in the tea estates but had nevertheless obtained housing from the company and jobs for their children in managerial positions in the plantations. It was a moment of supreme irony as the women workers tried to stop a strike called by trade unions ostensibly against anti-labour policies. No wonder that in the Pembillai Orumai strike, half the slogans were directed against the trade union leaders and they were stopped by the angry women workforce whenever they tried to step into the strike.

It was no coincidence that women workers were at the heart of the strike action and that the unions were seen as untrustworthy. The recent economic crisis in the Indian tea industry, which was triggered by the neoliberal structural adjustments in the Indian economy, had led to the closure of many plantations. The plantation companies had used the crisis as an excuse to cut down welfare measures such as free medical service, adding further burden onto the shoulders of the poor plantation workforce. The men were forced to seek work outside the plantations and the women, who stayed back, were often required to single-handedly manage the precarious situation. The suspension of welfare measures had worsened the workers’ conditions, especially without the union top defending them properly. The strike was a result of long-held anger.

Dalit women challenge the development model and ethnic prejudice

The Dalit women workers’ strike represents not only a challenge to the tea companies and corrupt trade unions, but also to the acclaimed Kerala model of development. On top of this, it was a reaction to the entrenched caste prejudices and ethnic stereotyping Dalits face in India.

Kerala has been widely lauded for having achieved human development goals comparable to those of economically advanced countries despite being economically poor. Its allegedly egalitarian economic model was highlighted as an alternative to neoliberal, free market policies. However, the ‘pro-poor’ policies largely passed over the plantations. Plantation workers have not benefited from the land reforms of the 1960s and 1970s, and thus the majority have remained poor, landless labourers working within the exploitative plantation system. Moreover, the women plantation workers face multiple levels of discrimination because they are, at the same time, Tamil, Dalit, and female.

Remarkably, though, the Pembillai Orumai challenged the negative caste prejudice and ethnic stereotyping of the plantation Tamils. The ethnic stereotyping of lower class Dalit Tamils is epitomised by the slur ‘pandi’, which symbolises the inferior in the oppositions of modern/non-modern, and resourceful/unresourceful. The portrayal of the Tamil plantation women as unresourceful was evident in the racist colonial conception of Tamil plantation workers as hard working but unintelligent. Echoes of this imagery were everywhere during the Pembillai Orumai strike. Many commentators, including trade union leaders, framed the strike as an anarchist act that could not be considered a proper form of resistance. They also repeatedly claimed that ‘invisible forces’ instigated the strike, an accusation the leaders of Pembillai Orumai strongly denied. These accusations were meant to rob the underclass—lower caste—Tamil speaking women of their due credit by suggesting they were incapable of organising themselves. Yet it was this very community who designed and implemented a model of resistance that interrogated the contradictions of the widely celebrated Kerala development model and its egalitarian claims.

And as all actions, this one had its own momentum. It also became an act of rebellion that challenged the social relations responsible for their alienated condition, including the ethnic stereotypes that characterised them as inferior. It was an attempt to reclaim human personality in a Dalit liberation tradition, not only for them but also for their men and their dead indentured ancestors.

The strike received worldwide attention, and the plantation companies agreed to increase the daily pay from Rs. 232 to Rs. 301 (£2.40 to £3.11) on 15 October. The workers called off the strike after the chief minister promised to consider their wage demand of Rs. 500 after the local elections. Since then, the Pembillai Orumai has contested local elections and won three seats—not a majority but enough to decide who will rule the local village council (Grama Panchayat) for the next five years. It remains to be seen whether Pembillai Orumai will keep their unity and autonomy beyond the threat of getting undermined by political parties.

About the author

Jayaseelan Raj is a postdoctoral research fellow in the poverty and inequality research programme at the Department of Anthropology, the London School of Economics and Political Science. His current research focuses on the persistence of poverty and inequality among the tea plantation workers of Kerala, south India. 


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