Enough is enough

Women tea pickers in India defied their bosses – and their union leaders – by holding their own strike.

 “We pick the tea and carry the bags on our shoulders, you carry off the money bags.” That’s just one of the slogans that were used by 6,000 female tea pickers on strike in Kerala, India, reports a BBC story. Another said, “We live in tin sheds, you enjoy bungalows.”

Such slogans were partly aimed at the strikers’ employer, Kanan Devan Hills Plantations, which is partly owned and largely controlled by Tata, India’s largest multinational conglomerate and the owner of Tetley Tea, among other brands. But they were mostly targeted at the union leaders who were supposed to represent them. When the women received no support from the company or the union, they went on strike on their own.

The decision to cut a 20% bonus paid to tea pickers was the apparent cause of the strike, but roots actually run much deeper. The women live in one-bed huts without toilets and their daily wage of US$3.50 is half of what the women say a labourer normally earns in Kerala.

After a nine-day strike in one of Kerala’s most popular tourist destinations, during which trade and tourism were almost entirely paralyzed, the company gave in and reinstated the bonus. But that was only one victory. As of late October, the strike was still on – and the strikers were saying they would continue as long as it took to ensure that wages rise.

The union tried to take the initiative back as its own, asking management for a wage increase from 232 rupees to 500 rupees a day. But the women wanted nothing of it and launched their own demand for higher wages. “We have nothing to lose,” said one of the leaders. “Hunger and suffering are part of our lives. We don’t care even if we starve to death, but we won’t allow anyone to exploit us. Enough is enough.”