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Last Updated Thursday January 24 2019 06:57 AM IST
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Munnar: Time for change

Oommen Chandy
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Munnar: Time for change Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy with workers at the Kanan Devan Hills Company in Kochi. File Photo: Josekutty Panackal

The recent developments in Munnar had sparked many discussions over the conduct and style of the agitation by women estate workers in the tea gardens of Munnar. Some alleged that terrorists and divisive forces had sparked the protest. All those are not true, but the fact is that the famed estates sector in Kerala is moving towards a crisis.

The agitation that we saw in Munnar started when it was known that the 20 per cent bonus that workers had been receiving, was to be curtailed. It was a spontaneous and innocent strike by women workers who were angry at their trade union leaders. The strike has now cascaded into other sectors as well.

Most of the labourers here do not have access to good living facilities. They live in one-room houses and access to education, health and other facilities are quite limited. We need to be sympathetic to their needs and try to ensure that they too are able to enhance their living standards.

On the other hand, estates are facing bigger operational competition and they can exist only through new strategies that enhance their profit from various sources. Current minimum wages can be converted into statutory wages or need-based wages. However that cannot be achieved by mere sloganeering and strikes, but only through cooperation between the government, workers and the management. I personally feel that maximum wages that can be borne by the management has to be given to the workers. Going beyond that would obviously lead to the closure of the firm.

In the Munnar strike, labour-union leaders were the ones who received maximum flak. Bonus is distributed as per legal norms and tripartite discussions. Those who had the chance to change theses norms did not try for it and are now blaming union leaders. Union leaders are also duty bound to ensure that the company is able to operate well. If that does not happen, they would be putting an end to their own existence.

It is wrong to assume that a 10 per cent bonus announcement made by the management was a failure of the trade union leadership. Similarly, it cannot be said that the 20 per cent bonus revision is a victory of political leaders. It would be wrong to believe that the influence the government wields on companies during critical junctures and the influence of local leaders on the company management are the same.

However, the union leaders failed to take workers into confidence. They need to be a bit more democratic. I know the labour leaders in Munnar. The criticism they received from the media and the disdain heaped on them by some leaders could be reviewed and reconsidered.

The management should have been a bit more humane to workers. Laws are applicable to the management as well and it may be observed that the management, too, had failed to abide by some statutory laws. Successive governments failed to catch the lapses of the management as well. All those who had power, are equally responsible for the events that unfolded at Munnar.

The high ranges are the pride of Kerala. In the past year, the state earned Rs 948 crore from tea exports from the Kochi port. We have to maintain the beauty, environment, wealth and culture of these regions.

The opposition leader is trying to fish in troubled waters. During the regime of the past LDF government, workers were afforded an increase of Rs 8.74 in their basic income while the UDF provided an increase of Rs 33.61. The demands that he has put forth now, therefore does not seem to be sincere.

In the case of Rubber, Cardamom and Coffee workers, the LDF government increased basic salaries to Rs 35.93, Rs 26.8 and Rs 14.6 respectively. On the contrary, the hikes put into effect by the UDF government were Rs 80.62, Rs 56.65 and Rs 33.61 respectively.

The government also extended the AABY programme, which offers insurance for workers in the unorganised sector and educational facilities for their children, to the estate sector. About 17,000 workers are members of the programme. Other developmental activities such as enhancing the basic living standards of workers and introducing insurance facilities are also on the anvil.

The discussions aimed at solving problems in the estate sector are to be held today and the government expects productive and sincere participation from all.

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