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Can there be a ‘socially responsible’ tea? Ashwini Sukhtankar and Peter Rosenblum

Sabita Banerji:

Shocking, saddening, sickening…

Originally posted on Kafila:


Almost four years ago, we first traveled to Rungamuttee, a tea estate in the Dooars, so far north that it nuzzles the Bhutan border. The region has recently fallen prey to the craze of “tea tourism,” and the estates jostle for space with eco-green-homestay lodges that lure middle class families with the opportunity to play at a mythic British sahib-memsahib life, sitting on verandahs sipping tea while gazing out over vast reaches of picturesque monoculture, with rows of squat green bushes as far as the eye can see.

We were not unmoved by the beauty and the weight of history, but we were there to talk to workers and to understand what plantation life meant for them in the 21st century.

At Rungamuttee, we sat perched in red plastic chairs, almost brushing knees with a sinewy old man, also in a red…

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The Ascent of Munnar’s Women

Womens march

1. “Women’s March on Versailles” by Unknown – Bibliothèque nationale de France. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons 2. Women workers joining Pengal Otrumai march 7/09/15. Photo: Sabita Banerji

A tea plucker once came to her manager and said, “I have now turned into a man, so I should be paid at the higher rate.” A medical examination confirmed that this miraculous transformation had indeed taken place and the higher rate of pay was duly approved. Mesmerised by the spontaneous sex change aspect of this story that I’d heard in my childhood in Munnar, South India, it never occurred to me at the time to question why the male rate of pay should automatically be higher.

A few weeks ago, revisiting Munnar, I did start to question it as I witnessed the birth of a women workers’ “rebellion” against low pay, poor living and working conditions and the male dominated management, politics and trade unions that keep them that way. It has been dubbed ‘Pengal Otrumai’ (Unity of Women). Coincidentally, around the same time, the BBC was screening an episode of its ‘The Ascent of Woman’ documentary series entitled ‘Revolution’, beginning with a reminder that it was the 1789 women’s march on Versaille that triggered the French revolution.

“I want to look at the women who were central to the revolutions that shaped the modern world.” Dr Amanda Foreman starts the programme by saying. “Courageous, visionary figures who fought for change and challenged the status quo.” The courageous figures who are central to Pengal Otrumai are Gomathi Augustine, Lisy Sunny and Indrani Manikandan. When they are not organising thousands of women workers to stage a sit-in outside management offices, or chasing trade union officials and politicians away from their protest or negotiating for better pay and living conditions, they are plucking tea. Contrary to the impression given by the smiling faces of colourfully clad tea pluckers on your pack of 80 tea-bags, tea plucking is an arduous and dangerous job.  Gomathi pointed out to a reporter from Mathrubhumi the steep hills the workers have to climb to pluck the tea “We make the up and down journey carrying 75-100 kg of leaves. On the way we confront elephants sometime. A minor slip from the heights can cost you your life.”

The slashing of their 20% festival bonus to 10% was the last straw. She and her fellow tea pluckers staged an historic 9-day sit-in outside the head office of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation company (KDHP). They drove away men, trade unions and politicians, claiming the stage entirely for themselves. Their bonus demand was finally agreed and a promise made for the Plantation Labour Committee (PLC) to discuss a pay rise. The tripartite wage negotiations that should take place every three years were already nine months overdue.

Dr Foreman believes that “a revolution is going to take place around women, their equality, their participation…” But this does not yet appear to be the case in South India, because when the wage negotiations took place on Saturday, the women were excluded as they were not PLC members. Ironically, the trade union officials whom they had explicitly driven away from the protest were, and it was they, not the women who had prompted the negotiations, who took part in it. Hopefully this does not presage for Pengal Otrumai the fate Dr Foreman observed for many women revolutionaries, that “revolutions all too often are about exchanging one power dynamic for another leaving women betrayed and excluded from the new societies they had helped to create.” The PLC negotiations failed to reach a conclusion, so perhaps they will relent on the basis that fresh (female?) blood may break the ancient stalemate between management and trade unions.

KDHP is, understandably, worried that a 100%+ increase in labour costs in a labour intensive industry already struggling with falling prices will destroy it. But without these women there would be no tea industry at all. Again there are parallels with Foreman’s documentary citing the Russian revolutionary conviction that “women’s participation in the workforce makes the country more prosperous.”  The tea industry has relied on the willingness of these women to work for low wages from the very beginning; the British pioneers of the Kerala plantations, unable to persuade local people to work for the wages they were offering, brought in impoverished dalit labourers from neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Was it just the alleged dexterousness of the women in plucking two leaves and a bud, that made them so ideal for the job, or was it also the fact that women were less likely to object to poverty wages for piteously hard work? But as the events of September 2015 showed, today’s more educated and socially networked generation is very likely to object.

Pengal Otrumai has triggered much soul-searching among politicians. Kerala’s Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy observed that “Successive governments failed to catch the lapses of the management [in observing laws on the humane treatment of workers].” He went on to confess that “All those who had power, are equally responsible for the events that unfolded at Munnar.”  Trade unions too, have been forced to examine their consciences. According to The Hindu, “Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) State president R. Chandrasekharan described the events in Munnar as “a clear failure on the part of the local trade union leadership…” and has sought an urgent meeting of all INTUC-affiliates in the plantation sector to discuss the issue.

Only the KDHP remains unrepentant, in a hurt and bewildered kind of way. In a statement on their Facebook page they plaintively repeat their pride in the worker-shareholder and participatory management system, how well they treat their workers and bemoan the huge financial losses the strike is causing them. Having recently received a glowing response from its workers’ satisfaction survey, and being held up globally as a shining example of ethical management, this must indeed have come as a shock to them. Elsewhere, they cite the fact that Munnar tea workers’ wages are among the highest in the sector. But as Justin Rowlatt’s recent BBC expose on conditions on Assamese tea plantations shows, this is not saying much. Plus, workers’ rights are not about how much better or worse off someone else is, they are about decency and fairness. They continue to believe that the strike was stirred up by outsiders, ‘militant elements’, despite the overwhelming evidence that the women drove away all outsiders – even their own husbands – from the protest.

Dr Foreman concludes her documentary saying “I believe that the future depends on the inclusion of women and to do this we have to break from the past and create a new model for social revolution.”  KDHP made a valiant step in this direction in 2005 when it enabled its workers to become shareholders, but now it needs to ask itself if those changes were truly radical and genuine or if they were just a public relations-friendly mask for the continuation of an old system that effectively keeps workers, particularly women, doing the maximum amount of work for the minimum reward and with the minimum voice?

Now that Munnar’s women have descended their treacherous hillsides and ascended the civil rights platform to make their voices heard, KDHP, and the Indian tea industry in general, would be wise to take heed. It would be wise to treat this as a wake-up call, to make a clean break from its own feudal and colonial past and remould itself in a new business model that ensures a decent living for all its workers, especially the women on whom it relies so heavily.

The real meaning of the ‘fairer’ sex?

Leaders of the Munnar women tea workers strike. Photo: Aravind Bala in Onmanorama

Gomathi Augustine, Lisy Sunny and Indrani Manikandan; leaders of the Munnar women tea workers strike. Photo: Aravind Bala in Onmanorama


A recent interview with the chairman of the UK’s Living Wage Foundation and witnessing the birth of Kerala’s Pengal Otrumai (Unity of Women) got me thinking…

The UK Conservative government’s recent (mis)appropriation of the term ‘living wage’ is the sincerest form of flattery. Its increased minimum wage level for over 25’s may not be an actual living wage, but the fact that it has seen fit to ‘borrow’ the term shows its recognition of the power of those words. There are now over 1,400 accredited Living Wage employers in the UK, and the number keeps rising. From boutique real ale breweries to – most recently – retail giants like Lidl, employers across the country are realising the moral, reputational and/or economic sense of paying their workers enough to live on.

So what political powerhouse is behind this radical transformation process?

The answer is there isn’t one.

Although the last Labour government introduced the minimum wage (to alarmist predictions of mass unemployment which never materialised), it is the Living Wage campaign of the East London Community Organisation (now London Citizens) that has persuaded employers voluntarily to pay way above that level to ensure people can earn enough in a standard week (ie without overtime) to support themselves and their families to a decent standard of living. It is the politicians who are following in the footsteps of civil society.

The movement began at the grass roots of British society when a group of East London parents, faith leaders, trade unionists and workers who were struggling to make ends meet despite working two or three jobs staged a peaceful protest outside the Barclays Bank head office. They offered cake to passers-by– perhaps to make a point about the way the ‘cake’ is divided in the economy, or perhaps simply because cake is a nice friendly way to introduce yourself to people and to sweeten the conversation.

Is a similar revolution now starting in the hills of South India? Two weeks ago I witnessed the birth of an unprecedented protest by thousands of women tea plantation workers voicing their disgust at a recent bonus cut, low wages and poor living conditions.  The Indian press is referring to it as a “rebellion”. If rebellion is defined as “behaviours aimed at destroying or taking over the position of an established authority…” then the term is an appropriate one. Because the protesters weren’t just saying we want better pay and conditions, they were also challenging the “established authority” of men.

As Amrith Lal says in the Indian Express “The women were discovering agency and identifying trade unions as a male preserve…” Their message (to paraphrase various interviews) was ‘men do not represent us, (male dominated) trade unions do not represent us, (male dominated) politicians do not represent us. We represent ourselves. We do the hard work of plucking the tea and carrying 50kg sacks on our backs. We also do the majority of the domestic work in the tiny two room huts provided by the company. The men just spray pesticides on the tea bushes and drive the lorries (for the same pay). So stay away all of you. This is OUR rebellion.’

And the power of the ‘Pengal Otrumai’ (Unity of Women), as they call themselves, is spreading. Other women tea workers have since come out on strike and women working for peanuts in the shrimp peeling sheds of Kerala have also staged a protest, saying “We have no faith in trade unions. We are inspired by the success of the Munnar women’s agitation because we too are fighting for our livelihood.”

In a recent interview, Living Wage Foundation chairman, Neil Jameson, says that during his time as a social worker; “We looked at many of the people that we looked after and they had two things in common: they were poor, and they had no power”. Such is the condition of almost half of humanity; the women toiling as domestic servants, sex workers, homeworkers, or as workers in flower farms, fruit orchards, salad farms, shrimp peeling sheds and not least in the millions of garment factories that have sprung up in so many developing countries generating billions of dollars’ trade. In addition to the powerlessness that comes with poverty (and the poverty that comes with powerlessness), they are further handicapped by social norms which place women firmly below the status of men.

Eighty per cent of workers in the Bangladeshi garment sector, which is the driving force of the country’s economy, are women. Yet last week a Bangladeshi described his country to me as “woman-hostile”. None but the bravest of women dare aspire to becoming supervisors because of the burden of domestic responsibilities weighing them down, because they know women are not supposed to be in charge (despite the country having a powerful woman prime minister). Especially since the horror of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse killing over 1,100 mostly women workers – and prompted by the global outcry it elicited – Western brands have been making efforts to improve working conditions in their supply chains. Yet women workers themselves continue to remain powerless and poor. Gargantuan garment factories, glittering five star hotels and the office blocks of factory owners tower above their one-story huts.

Jameson says: “There are three important sectors: one is the state, one is the market, and one is civil society. Civil society is the weakest, the most fractured, the most misunderstood; yet it is, of course, the most important because it is where millions reside, and it is the place where people develop children. It is where families lie” He describes civil society assemblies as “the political tool for non-partisan people to show their power”. This is a perfect description of the Pembila Orumai protests. The women of Munnar literally chased away politicians who turned up to support (or appropriate) their protest. They threw stones at trade union offices. And while their menfolk, laughing like children, threw armfuls of green tea leaves as passing traffic, they sat for nine days in a solemn ‘dharna’ outside the Headquarters Office of KDHP, the company of which they are supposed to be shareholders and management participants.

Their actions say loud and clear that they feel let down by those who claim to (and perhaps genuinely believe that they) represent them and have their best interests at heart. The management, unions and politicians have, whether intentionally or not, ensured through their systems, negotiations and social norms that the women their industry thrives off receive as little as possible in return.

The women workers of Munnar’s tea plantations have spoken. How much longer will the women garment workers of Bangladesh (and China and Vietnam and India and Cambodia) stay silent? How much longer will they tolerate their pathetic wages, their long working hours, the bullying and sexual harassment that come with their jobs? How long will they accept being lorded over by male supervisors, male trade unionists, male politicians and by their husbands, uncles, brothers and fathers?  Could the Pembilla Orumai rebellion spread to the garment sector and all the other sectors which rely on women’s labour and women’s silence to generate vast profits? Could these women, quietly and with cake like the East London community or with noisy dignity like the women of Munnar, rise up from the grass roots and achieve what politicians, trade unions, NGOs and CSR programmes have so far failed to achieve; a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work for everyone? If so, it would bring a whole new meaning to the term ‘the fairer sex’.

The scent of crushed tea leaves…and dreams

P1000625The morning started quietly – I was the sole guest in the dimly lit High Range Club dining room. The rain was lashing down outside and mist wreathed the tops of the nearby hilltops.  The Club lent me a rainbow coloured umbrella and I decided to walk the mile or so into Munnar over one of its many bridges. A crowd of ladies in colourful saris was streaming across it, shouting jokes back and forth, laughter rippling from the front to the back of the procession. I wondered where they were off to on this Monday morning; clearly not to work in the tea plantations.

My plan was to catch up with my emails in an internet café over a coffee and then meet up with the HR manager of the worker-owned Kanan Devan Hill Production Company Pvt Ltd, which also operated a ‘participatory management’ system which involved workers at every level of the estates. He said he was a bit busy this morning. Last year he’d told me about the “happiness survey” of KDHP which had revealed that the majority of workers rated their employment and lives here as ‘good’ or ‘satisfactory’.  This time I hoped he would help me to meet some workers to hear about Munnar’s ground-breaking system from their point of view.

I was surprised to see the KDHP sales outlet on the ground floor of the Head Quarters Office building was closed. Policemen were gathered outside the HQ Office door.  A little further on, a crowd of people stood waving black flags on thin bamboo poles. I heard slogans being chanted from another direction, and another crowd of protesters marched in. Over the next hour or so more and more of them poured in from every direction, mostly women, shouting slogans, punching the air, waving their black flags and cardboard placards.  I could see why the HR manager might be a tad busy this morning. A man singled me out with my rainbow coloured umbrella and, in the midst of the yelling protesters and ranks of police, asked if I would be interested in an ayurvedic massage. You have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit.

I asked a lady beside me what was going on. With my barely existent Tamil I couldn’t understand much of her answer except the bit about the fact that they were protesting against their low pay and bonuses. I took a photo of someone ripping strips off a large poster of a grinning politician, but I was immediately surrounded by young men saying no photos, unless I wanted to go up to the front with the media.  But they did want to tell me about the strike and for me to “Vaatsapp” their message to London as they put it. They said workers worked 7-8 hours a day, their work is very hard, they face “elephant, tiger, blood sucking leeches” and only get paid Rs230 (about £2). “Don’t they get money from shares in the company?” I asked. They shrugged.  The language barrier was too great to get to the bottom of how workers in a worker-owned company with participatory management could be striking in the first place.

I found a prime position under an awning on the steps of a hotel – along with several policemen and a few other civilian gawkers like me.  The street was by now carpeted with tea leaves and crowds of men were beckoning cars, minibuses and auto-rickshaws on towards them, laughing as if challenging them to a game, and then showering them with armfuls of the leaves, stuffing them in through the windows. The drivers and passengers were laughing too (a little more nervously). The unmistakable bouquet of tea that normally wafts up from a pot or freshly roasted from a factory now rose from fresh leaves crushed under tyres, sandals and boots. It was almost a carnival atmosphere – but I couldn’t help thinking that any minute it could all turn nasty. And indeed at one point I did see some men roughly shoving an elderly man in a white dhoti – though luckily nothing more seemed to come of it. Later, another shout went up and a small but vociferous group of BJP supporters carrying orange lotus symbol flags, all dressed in white marched off – strangely in the opposite direction to the main protest.

WP_20150907_052Suddenly the hotel manager I was chatting with rushed inside and started to close the metal shutters of the hotel – in a flash the policemen all dived inside too. I looked around and realised I was now completely alone on the steps… and although I couldn’t sense any immediate danger from the crowd, I succumbed to the natural human instinct, when all around are losing their heads, to panic. There was still a small gap under the metal shutters – I thought about throwing myself on the ground and rolling in at the last moment like they do in the movies, but opted instead to squat down and shout pathetically through the gap, “Can I come in too, please?” It was opened again enough for me to crawl in.

Inside the hotel lobby, there was a back window with a good view of the bridge behind the Office – now a flood of protesters’ black umbrellas – and glimpses of other parts of the town that twisted around itself with the river. The policemen were laughing at something happening on the bridge – so clearly they had not rushed in to avoid violence and anarchy. They soon trooped out again but the civilians stayed, pointing out where trouble spots were flaring (in the direction that the BJP group had gone) and debating what was going on. One of them repeated to me the explanation about the workers getting only Rs230 a day and working hard under dangerous circumstances. Again I asked about the shares. Again my informant didn’t seem to know much about it. He said that the trouble that was flaring up in the otherwise peaceful protest was because the workers were not happy about the political interference in the strike. He also said that the strike was not organised by any trade union but by workers themselves. In fact, he said that the unions who themselves were affiliated to different political parties- Communist, Congress, BJP etc – were part of the problem, skimming a percentage off the workers’ negotiated salary. The papers today say workers attacked the union offices with stones for “failing to protect the interests of the workers”.

I was getting hungry, but this time virtually every shop, restaurant and hotel’s metal shutter was firmly down. As I queued at the counter of one of the few little shops still open for something to eat, groups of women marched down the street shouting sternly at the shopkeepers to close them too. The atmosphere was starting to feel less carnival-like and I was feeling increasingly conspicuous and vulnerable with my rainbow coloured umbrella.

In the compound of the slightly safer feeling Munnar Post Office raised above street level, I got talking to a man who was equally sympathetic with the workers and also equally mystified by whether or not they get income from their shares. “And it’s the first time the ladies are being activists!” he said, widening his eyes and waggling his head in admiration at their pluck.

Like the others I had spoken to, he said he’d never known a strike like this to be called in Munnar before. But I had. It was in 1968 when I was seven. Then, too, workers had surrounded the Head Quarters Office to demand higher bonuses, only that time my Dad was inside it. And when he and the General Manager tried to leave, the protesters surrounded the car and threw stones at them, the smashed glass of the windows cutting their faces and arms. It could have ended with worse bloodshed than that, but a solitary policeman appeared in the midst of the crowd, bravely swinging his baton. The crowd hesitated long enough for the car to escape.

While I was planning my own “escape” from the increasing intensity building up on the streets, my new friend at the Post Office, who was an hotelier and real estate agent, took the opportunity to try to sell me some land, explaining that good money could be made by building a guest house here. Again, you have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit.

I have no idea how to end this post. I have no wise summing up statements to make that neatly tie up this story because I don’t know what to think or who to believe… where I thought there was hope, there is strife; where I thought I saw clarity there is confusion… I’m still hoping that I will somehow get to the bottom of it, and that when I get there, there will still be a glimmer of hope.

And sometimes fate gives in to temptation…

2011beachcricket (2)

It was a perfect summer day by the seaside. We sat on the beach looking out over a cloudless blue sky – the sea sparkling beneath it. Behind us, over the Shoreham Airfield, we could see a small plane doing crazy loop-the-loops and barrel rolls, climbing to the top of an arc of white smoke and then plummeting downwards. For a few moments it would disappear from sight behind the buildings between us and the Shoreham Airfield, just a couple of miles away. My heart was in my mouth each time. But then it would rocket upwards again. Relief!

Then a large fighter plane flew in over the sea. I didn’t notice where it came from. It’s sleek, triangular shape like a dark bird of prey in the summer sky. We tried to guess what kind of plane it was, laughed as we made up names for it, forgot it as it disappeared over our heads. And we went on getting ready to swim in the sea.

There was something so simple and peaceful about the sea. The purity of the horizon. The ice cold entry and the gradual acclimatisation of my body and then letting the waves take over. Floating on my back I listened to the rustle of pebbles being raked forwards and backwards underwater. Back on the beach one of the kids said quietly. “There must have been an accident…” We all turned to see a vast cloud of black smoke unfolding over the direction of the airfield.

There could have been no doubt as to what had happened, but somehow we all seemed to enter a long period of denial, reluctant to admit that people might have died. Reluctant to give up the peace and joy of the summer seaside. “Oh, you know, they sometimes re-enact World War II scenes, it’s probably that”. But when no more planes entered the sky, we knew it was not a re-enactment. The lady in the chip shop told us that the pilot had managed to escape and was in hospital. “Oh, thank god,” we said. “What a miracle! That’s alright then.” And we went on enjoying our day with a sigh of relief.

We didn’t want to even entertain the idea that others might have been hurt or killed or traumatised, although, thinking about it now, we should have realised that was a strong possibility. We kept checking twitter – mainly to see how our journey home would be affected – and no more news of fatalities came through. As we joined the gridlocked traffic on the roundabout outside the entrance to the air show, the smell of burning fuel and metal drifted in through the open windows. Ambulances and police cars carved a path through the stationary lines of cars. But very soon we were out of the jam and back on our usual road home.

It was only when we got home – reconnected with the internet – that we saw the video footage of the Hawker Hunter climbing to the top of its loop and plummeting downwards – just like the little plane had done. But this one never did reappear. It was only then that we learned that at least seven people had lost their lives and many others been injured when the plane crashed into cars and motorbikes at a red traffic light on the A27…

These two images keep playing simultaneously in my mind.

The vast, perfect blue sky and being supported in the chill green ocean – chips and ice cream and dogs leaping into the sea after flung tennis balls, children shrieking with joy.

And – just a couple of miles away – a vast fireball tearing through the lives of seven people like a bomb. A bomb whose impact waves will crash through the lives of each of those seven people’s families, their friends, their colleagues… waves of horror for everyone who witnessed it.

If the image keeps coming back to me, who only saw a cloud of smoke, what nightmares must those who were there, or whose loved ones were killed, be having, over and over?

On the packed train back to London, as often happens when disaster strikes, strangers started speaking to each other. A couple who had been part of the audience at the airfield were still stunned. They said that when the plane crashed there was complete silence on the airfield. The commentator just stopped talking as everyone tried to readjust their take on reality from lovely day out to unspeakable horror. “We had packed a picnic and a bottle of wine, but we just haven’t had the heart to open it…” the husband said quietly.

Also in the news today the attempted terrorist attack on a French TGV train and a man killed by police in a siege in South London. The fallout from the chemical factory explosion in China continues… reminding us that every moment someone somewhere is dying, in less or more horrifying circumstances.  When it happens a mile or so away from you (or yards away, or to someone you know and love) your natural barrier to that knowledge breaks down. You feel guilty for enjoying the sea, your chips, laughter with your family, for having a picnic and a bottle of wine. It all seems so trivial in comparison. The danger then is that you won’t be able to close that breach. That the horror, and potential horror, will continue to pour in and overwhelm you so that you can no longer function.

But the truth is that we live in a far safer and more peaceful world than in any other time in history. Fewer people are being killed in wars, violent crime is reducing, there are fewer maternal deaths in childbirth and more children are surviving too. The HIV pandemic is slowing down, we seem on the verge of a breakthrough in the treatment of cancer… And for all our frustration with and mocking of the Health and Safety brigade, we are undeniably safer and more healthy because of them.

After the crash, a friend recalled watching the Red Arrows performing earlier in the week and reflected that it is a human trait to tempt fate. And sometimes fate gives in to temptation. But we cannot give in to the temptation to let the horror take over. It’s vital to see beyond the horror at the countless normal everyday acts of reassurance that people love each other and are safe, however banal and trivial that may seem. They are not trivial – they are the very core of life. Also on that packed train was a Rastafarian father bonding with his tiny baby, tickling laughs from it, bursting with love at the sound. A couple of tattooed gay guys got on at Gatwick glowing from their holiday. A mother and son of about seven hugged and giggled after having to sit on the floor under the luggage racks of the overcrowded train.

An interview with a mother who escaped with her children from her car just 15 meters from the crash contained the expression “…it was great”. She was talking about the way the police had reacted, arriving in seconds, keeping everyone at a safe distance in case of a second explosion. She was talking about how people helped each other and gave each other advice…

In everyday life, just as in the heat of a disaster, this is what we all need to do. Take care of each other. Take care of yourself – so that you are safe and so that you can take care of others. Take care of the planet.

Background: At least seven people were killed and many injured when a Hawker Hunter plane crashed into cars on the A27 during Shoreham Air Show on Saturday August 22nd.

Before you put your money where your mouth is, put your mouth where your heart is

“Living wage? Oooh, that’s a tricky question. Should it be imposed? What level should it be set at? Won’t lots of people lose their jobs? Shouldn’t people just be paid what the free market says they are “worth”? It’s better than the alternative, though, isn’t it? They are actually lucky they have jobs at all, aren’t they?”

These are some of the rhetorical questions that people ask when faced with the question of whether anonymous burger fryers in New York or distant garment factory workers in the East should be paid a living wage.

So let me put it another way.

Imagine your daughter slogging her way through a series of minimum wage jobs, coming home at four in the morning, feet blistered and clothes covered with beer slops; gritting her teeth while restaurant customers fling insults at her for the state of the food she did not cook; being stood over and yelled at while scraping chewing gum trodden into the opera house carpet.  She doesn’t complain (well not much) because she knows all this is temporary. She knows this is a stepping stone on to better things. She sticks it out and as soon as she can get a “proper job” she puts it all behind her.

She is one of the lucky ones. She had a free education and a bit of financial backing from her parents. At the end of her shift she could come home and have her laundry done by Mum. She did – eventually – have alternative ways of earning a living. But what if she hadn’t? What if she and her partner had a baby? What if the only way they could make enough to feed the baby was for both of them to do two or even three of these jobs because they were paid so little for them that there were barely enough hours in the day to make enough to live on from them? Would you consider them “lucky” for having these jobs?

What if they had had to get into debt to pay their bills and the loan sharks started getting violent? What if the stress of it all drove them to drink and their baby was taken into care? Is this a situation a civilised society should consider acceptable? Is this within the realm of those precious “British values” we’re supposed to be teaching Johnny Foreigner?

What if your daughter had happened to be born in a country with no social services? What if someone said to them, “Your child is six already, he could come and work in my carpet factory? Of course, I can’t pay him a living wage (don’t make me laugh!) but you’re lucky I’m offering him this chance to help the family out.”  What if the baby was a girl and someone offered them even more money to take the child – my granddaughter, your granddaughter – somewhere far away, promising a new life… (but in your heart of hearts you know it may be to a fate worse than death)? But if the alternative is starvation for them and for you (because by now you, the grandparents, are dependent on your daughter too as there’s no state pension and no NHS), is the little girl “lucky” to have this offer?

Oh, but I’m losing you, aren’t I? This is all getting too melodramatic, too exotic, too far from your own experience. You can’t relate to it any more. Thank your lucky stars that you can’t, that your daughter will never go through such a nightmare. It is the reality for millions of people – but what have they got to do with you? Ponder on that when you buy your next really cheap top or discount pack of tea.

Of course, I’m not blaming you. It’s not your fault. You don’t decide how much workers get paid. Actually neither does the shop where you bought your top or your tea bags. Neither do the agents who find the factories to source from. Even the factory owners are constrained by the prices they are paid for their products. Everyone’s just trying to survive, trying to do the best they can for their own daughters and sons, just as you are when you reach for the cheapest tea bags. There’s a whole complex system (they call it a supply chain but it’s more like a supply labyrinth) out there. You’re just a tiny part of it. You have no power…. or do you?

Did you know that retailers see you – yes you –as the most powerful person in the supply chain? They’ve done surveys of your opinions and you’re telling them that the way workers are treated is the most important issue of all to you. But then you always go for the cheapest option.  Mind you, they are always advertising their relative cheapness, which may be the lead you are following.  So lots of you abandoned Tesco and and Sainsburys for Aldi and Lidl because they’re cheaper, and now the big boys have started what the media is calling a “bloody” price war.

But the only people bleeding are going to be the workers in the darkest recesses of the supply labyrinth who will now have to work even harder to cover their bills. To feed their children and their parents. To fend off the debt collectors.

Of course you can afford to pay a little bit more and of course you would choose the fairer option if you knew what it was – but it’s hard to know, isn’t it? Unless it has a Fairtrade label on it, how can you tell? We’ve seen the documentaries that prove a higher price is no guarantee that workers are better paid, that it may just mean that factory owners or shareholders are better paid…

But there is one thing you can do, and it may surprise you. Before you put your money where your mouth is, put your mouth where your heart is. Let your regular supermarket and top shop know you care AND that you’re willing to pay a bit more. Send them a postcard, email, blog, Tweet and Facebook them. Buy shares and stand up and speak at their board meetings… Not to attack and insult them, but to show that you know you and they are in it together and that if they’re willing to do their bit, so are you.

If they know you’re serious they’ll try to do something about it. Really. They can’t do it on their own, but they can work with trade unions and NGOs and governments and their suppliers and each other to improve the lot of the millions who make what we wear and eat and use. And believe it or not many already are doing this.

We can all say, “You know what? Actually, no, it’s not acceptable that some people should have to live through hell so that others can buy a cheap top, or make a huge profit”. So let’s shave a little bit off our profits and add a little bit more to the price we pay. Let’s insist that the extra is intended for the workers and not the factory owner. And then there is actually a possibility that nobody will have to do more than one full time job, or work crazy overtime hours, or get into debt or put their kids out to work (or worse), just to live like a decent human being.

And before you dismiss all this as happy-clappy, bleeding heart, Guardian-reading nonsense, may I point out this quote in Forbes magazine from Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England; “Inclusive capitalism is fundamentally about delivering a basic social contract comprised of relative equality of outcomes; equality of opportunity; and fairness across generations. Different societies will place different weights on these elements but few would omit any of them.” I’d also like to share this quote from proudly non-bleeding heart The Times, but you have to subscribe to read it…  You can decide whether or not you’re willing to pay for that. You are more powerful than you know. But remember, and my final quote is from Spidey, “With great power comes great responsibility”.

The Transformation of a Tea Plantation

I was born in a little hospital on a hilltop in Munnar, in the the Western Ghats, South India. These lush, green, achingly beautiful hills provide the perfect environment for growing one of the world’s favourite drinks; tea. As far as the eye can see in any direction there are acres and acres of precisely trimmed tea bushes as green, shiny and precious as emeralds.


We left Munnar at the end of the nineteen sixties, when the Finlay Muir & Co,  the Scottish company that had owned these tea plantations since 1894, was beginning to hand over the Kanan Devan Hill Production company to India’s Tata Tea (now Tata Global Beverages). Towards the end of Finlay Muir’s era there were many clashes between workers and management. My childhood memories are peppered with images – real or reported – of angry workers chanting slogans, managers being ‘gheraoed‘ – trapped inside the Headquarters Office and getting chilli powder thrown in their eyes if they tried to escape, smashed car windows and blood spattered suits…

The Tata group prides itself on its corporate social responsibility or CSR and when it took over KDHP it improved workers’ wages and living conditions and instigated a range of welfare initiatives for the workers and the local community. But by 2005 it became clear that the plantations had ceased to be profitable for them and they decided to focus on their instant, packaging and branded tea products instead.

I had been living in the UK for many years and working for an international development organisation when I heard that Tata Tea had handed over ownership of the plantations to the workers. Wonderful though it sounded, I was skeptical that a business corporation would do something like this purely out of the kindness of its heart. If the plantation was unprofitable for Tata Tea, wouldn’t it become a financial mill stone for its poor and far less business-savvy workers?

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit Munnar again and to meet with Santjith Raju, the HR manager of what was now the Kanan Devan Hill Plantation Company Private Ltd. Mr Raju very kindly took the time to explain in more detail how the new system was working.

He told me that Tata Tea was unwilling to simply sell the plantations to the highest bidder as they were concerned that the welfare projects they had spent two decades developing would be discontinued. Seeking some way that the workers could gain ownership of the plantations and benefit directly from any profits, it at first experimented with a co-operative model on Tenmallai Estates. But this did not succeed, partly because the workers did not have sufficient levels of education.

Under the guidance of Mr T.V. Alexander, the company decided instead to offer the employees the opportunity to buy 69% shares in the company, with Tata Tea retaining the remaining shares. Everyone from the managing director to the tea pluckers were given the opportunity to buy shares with minimum levels appropriate to their income. So tea pluckers would need to buy a minimum of just Rs 3,000 in shares (approximately £30 at today’s exchange rates) while managers would need to buy a minimum of around a million rupees worth (approximately £10,000).

The company’s managers traveled around the area educating the workers as to what this would mean for them, how they would benefit, what the risks might be, etc. It also helped those who needed them to get bank loans to buy the shares. Shareholders have so far had a 159% return on their investment.

At the time there were 26 tea estates with 18,000 employees, including managers and assistant managers for each estate. By implementing a voluntary retirement scheme and merging several of the estates – creating just seven large estates subdivided into sections – Tata Tea reduced the number of employees to 13,000 and drastically reduced management overheads.  A sectional office can be managed by a single member of staff. The company no longer had to contribute to the costs of the regional office in Kochi or the head office in Kolkatta. Kanan Devan Hill Plantation Company Private Ltd now sells its tea to the highest bidder at domestic auctions, including Typhoo and Tetley. Tata Global Beverages is just another of its customers.

KDHP salaries are governed by a tripartite group including the Kerala Labour Ministry, Kerala tea producers and the worker unions. A tea plucker’s salary is currently Rs 212 per day (the statutory minimum wage for Kerala is around Rs 170 per day). This is just £2 per day at current exchange rates, but these workers also get free accommodation, electricity, water and medical care. As per Indian law, the company also pays into a provident fund for their retirement. There is a production incentive scheme for workers calculated from a monthly base amount with an increasing rate per kilo plucked on top of this base. Workers are usually able to earn about Rs 6,000 or Rs 7,000 a month in incentives. And of course on top of all this, there is the dividend that they earn as shareholders – assuming the company continues to make a profit.

But the employees are not just passive shareholders and wage-earners. They also have the opportunity to play a role in the management of the company.  A body of elected representatives from among all levels of workers advises the board of directors. Every three years, two men and two women from each estate are elected. They are given appropriate training to boost their confidence and skills. Together they then looking at budgets and targets month by month to track the performance of their estate and compare it with other estates. With their long experience of planting and nurturing tea they are often able to make very practical suggestions for improving the yield of their estate. These suggestions are included in minutes which are circulated within KDHP.

Each year, the most productive worker is given a place on the board and 7 out of 8 times, this has been a woman. These board members are given training to ensure they are confident to take an active part in board meetings and, in return, they provide a valuable workers’ perspective. For example one worker representative informed the board that since the increase in tourism in the area the price of basic commodities like rice had shot up beyond the reach of plantation workers. The Board immediately responded by arranging for subsidised rice to be provided to the workers.

Kerala, which has a long history of communist governance, has 98% unionisation. The company maintains a “cordial relationship” with the unions. Since the change to worker-ownership there have been instances when unions have declared a bandh or general strike, yet KDHP workers have continued to come to work.

During the formation of the new company, Tatas also retained 27% of the shares, as well as responsibility for the welfare projects, including a school for differently abled children of plantation workers. They also continued to support an income generation and rehabilitation project for these children once they graduate which makes high quality jam, recycled paper and organically dyed textiles. Fruit for the jam making is bought from plantation workers who have all been given plots of land on which to grow their own vegetables, cotton for the paper-making is recycled from the garment factories of Tamil Nadu and the textile dyes are made with entirely natural, organic ingredients. These are not small-scale charitable operations, but successful enterprises that just happen to be run by people who are differently abled. They get some support but on the whole they are clearly empowered, in charge and thriving on their productivity and creativity.

When I was a child in Munnar, the managers’ children went away to expensive English medium boarding schools (or boarding schools in England), while the workers’ children went to a local Tamil medium school in Munnar town. Now the new High Range School caters for all the children in the area “from the managing director’s daughter to the tea pluckers’ children”. It has an excellent academic reputation. Mr Raju is himself a product of this school and the fact that his father was a staff member and he is now the HR manager of KDHP is testament to the social mobility that the new system has made possible.

KDHP is a company founded on social as well as sound business principles. As such it continues to seek ways of reinforcing its ethical credentials. It has an organic division, has gained Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade certification and links up with the Ethical Tea Partnership.

A recent “happiness survey” commissioned by KDHP from an independent consultant found a 97% satisfaction rate among workers. But, interesting and positive as this all sounded, none of it could be described as independent corroboration of the success of the project. Only speaking directly to a worker and seeing at first-hand how they lived would confirm what Mr Raju and others were telling me.

Luckily, I had an opportunity to do just this. When my family lived in Munnar, like other managers’ families, the company provided our household with a domestic staff. These servants lived in a row of tiny, two-room houses, “the lines” on the hillside behind our spacious bungalow. Raman, was our syce, responsible for looking after our horses, cows and other animals. Now, over forty years later, his son, Chinnakan, is soon to retire from a long career as the company’s Generator Mechanic. I visited him in the small, but well built and comfortable  house close to the centre of Munnar where he lives with his family. Both his sons and his daughter are well educated and have good jobs, mobile phones, computers… their children attend English medium schools. Chinnakan drives his own car and also shares a motor cycle with his son. He has built himself a fine house in the nearby town of Udumalpet where he will retire. All this would have been unheard of for someone like Chinnakan in my day. Chinnakan confirmed that being a shareholder in KDHP had played an important part in making all this possible.

It’s a very impressive success story at a time when the tea industry is struggling with plunging  prices and media exposés of exploitation and abuse on tea plantations elsewhere in India and the world. (Tata Tea tried a similar model in its estates in Assam but with much less success.)

Ironically, despite all of this, KDHP is now facing manpower shortages. Or perhaps it is partly because of the benefits the company has brought. The children of tea pluckers are now not just literate, but well educated . Their horizons are much wider and few are likely to want to follow in their parents’ arduous footsteps through the tea bushes. But KDHP managers are already thinking ahead, with an eye on the vast Australian farms which are mechanised to the point that a single person can manage hundreds of hectares of agricultural land. They can visualise a time when tea is plucked by machines suspended from cranes on the steep hillsides.

The High Range has seen many changes over the centuries – the social and physical landscapes shifting and changing in unison. From the days when Muthuvan tribes-people trekked across its virgin forests hunting deer, bison and wild boar, to the clearing of the forests and planting of tea, coffee and cardamom (but mainly tea) by hardy Scottish planters, to the reshaping of the landscape by a devastating flood in 1924. The green hills have been etched with red, dust roads, now impeccably tarred. The slopes have been traversed by narrow gauge railways and Heath-Robinson-like ropeways, now all gone. Colonial tea-planters, European and Indian, have been replaced by all Indian worker-owners.  And now a new invasion of tourists – including droves of cooing honey-moon couples – is taking place, with an accompanying crop of brash new hotels and home-stays.

One day giant cranes may be swaggering across those emerald hills, nibbling at the surfaces of the tea-bushes, operated by a single person from a small control-room in the Headquarters Office in Munnar. The grandchildren of today’s worker-shareholders will be busy working in their air-conditioned offices in Kochi and Coimbatore (perhaps still supplementing their savings from their inherited KDHP shares). And the honeymoon couples will still be gazing, hand in hand, over the breathtaking views from Top Station.

So be it. It will just be another phase in the endless reinvention of one of the most beautiful and productive places on earth.

Please read my subsequent blogs on this issue. All was not as rosy as it seemed!


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