The labour troubles of Kanan Devan Hills Plantations, the largest tea estate in Munnar, ironically began less than two months after its management practices were rated among the best in the country.

Around July, the Great Place to Work Institute and People Matters, a Human Resources knowledge platform, praised Kanan Devan’s bottom-to-top management approach under which 69% of the company’s shares are owned by its employees.

And early in September, over 5,000 plantation workers of the company, most of them women, went on strike demanding higher wages and bonuses. Swarms spilled on to Munnar’s streets, along with their family members, bringing the popular Kerala hill station to a halt.

For nine days, neither labour unions’ appeals nor politicians’ offers to mediate could placate the plantation workers. There was a fear that the agitation, if it gets drawn out, could mar the tourist season in the hill station next month.

Finally, on Sunday night, after a marathon discussion chaired by Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, the management accepted the agitators’ major demand of 20% bonus. While 11.67% of this will be given ex gratia, the remaining, the statutory minimum of 8.33%, will be paid as bonus.

The government, and the stakeholders, are relieved that the impasse has ended. But there are indications that tensions still remain.

Paltry returns for their toil

Kanan Devan Hills Plantations “succeeded Tata Tea Limited” in April 2005 when Tata Tea “exited most of its plantations in Munnar to focus on the growth of its branded tea business”. The previous financial year, Tata Tea, in a restructuring, handed the control of its 17 tea estates in Munnar to the nearly 13,000 employees by allocating them 300 shares each.

While the company still takes pride in making the workers co-owners, the workers maintain that the deal made little difference to their lives.

They say their toil brought additional profits to the company after the restructuring, but the only extra benefit they got in return was a paltry dividend, which stood at Rs 300 last year. Their daily wage and living conditions, they say, remained unchanged.

What put a match to the tinder of their discontent was the company’s decision to cut down the bonus this year from 19% to 10%.

The company’s managing director K Abraham Mathew said this measure was necessitated by a 68% drop in profits last year. Without the bonus cut, he said, the company would slide into losses. The entire tea plantation sector in south India, which contributes 42% of the country’s exports, he said, was facing a serious crisis because of a 23% fall in tea auction prices. Unless changes were made, it’ll be difficult to run the company, Mathew added.

The result of the changes: a strike of a kind that a highly unionised Kerala had seldom witnessed. The agitation was spearheaded by the workers themselves, with trade unions and politicians being kept at bay. On the first day of the strike, in fact, the workers sent a strong message to trade union leaders by laying siege to their offices in Munnar.

Nine days and several rounds of talks didn’t provide a breakthrough. Finally, the company relented after Chandy joined the deliberations on Sunday evening. The government, at first, had difficulty in thrashing out a solution since labour laws allow a settlement with only recognised trade unions. To get around this, the government considered Kanan Devan Hills Plantations a special case and directed the company to resolve the issue by paying the statutory minimum 8.33% as bonus and the remaining as ex-gratia.

As regards the workers’ other demand for wage hike, the management agreed to leave it to the Plantation Labour Committee, which will meet in the presence of the Labour Minister on September 26. The government, meanwhile, agreed to amend the Plantation Labour Act to make available full medical benefits to the workers and their families and to improve their housing facilities.

Warning to politicians and union leaders

The episode has left Kerala’s trade unions, which exercise a strong sway over the working class in the state, rattled by the way they were made irrelevant by the female workers. Indeed, the female workers say the leaders have been conniving with the management to deny them their entitlements.

A worker at the forefront of the agitation alleged that the union leaders were betraying the workers by pocketing money and other benefits from the management. “While the trade union leaders lead a luxurious life, we struggle hard to make ends meet,” said the angry worker. “What we get for the hard labour is Rs 230 per day. This is less than half of what a daily wage labourer gets in Kerala today. This is not sufficient to meet even our food requirements. The trade union leaders live in bungalows allotted by the company, while we live in huts without toilets and other basic amenities.”

The striking workers also didn’t trust politicians. Barring leader of opposition VS Achuthanandan, all others fielded by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – including Member of Legislative Assembly S Rajendran and Member of Parliament PK Sreemathy – were chased away. The ruling Congress leaders also tasted the wrath of the workers.

The lone woman minister PK Jayalakshmi, Mahila Congress president Bindhu Krishna and another senior women leader Latika Subhash were allowed to join the strike only after the minister agreed to stay in Munnar until a solution was found.

Joseph C Mathew, who served as Achuthanandan’s IT advisor during his reign as chief minister, felt the strike was a warning to politicians and trade union leaders. “None of them has been able to address the genuine concerns of the workers, who have finally proved their strength in fighting for their cause.”