The Women Who Set Fire to Their Boss – Part II
Assam tea pluckers
(This is the second of two posts regarding the recent industrial dispute on a tea plantation in India in which 1,000 tea workers set fire to their employer’s bungalow, killing both him and his wife.)
Why Weren’t MKB Tea Pluckers in the Union?
Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) is the largest tea workers union. Their general secretary Dileshwar Tanti also appeared briefly on the BBC World Have Your Say broadcast I mention in my last post. He reports the workers at MKB tea plantation weren’t unionized, though most tea workers are. I found the comment puzzling and felt it also deserved further scrutiny. Most of the reader commentary on the BBC Facebook site and elsewhere strongly condemns the women for resorting to violence, rather than going to the union or the authorities to resolve their back pay dispute.
A recent article for the Asia Monitor Resource Center by feminist political scientist Sujata Gothoskar paints an extremely bleak picture of trade union effectiveness in Assam state. Despite strong union penetration, Assam’s tea plantations still operate under a system that amounts to slave labor. All the most difficult work – including carryingmore than 40 kgs of green leaf on their backs every day – is performed by women. In addition over 90 per cent of the tea workers are either Scheduled Tribes or Scheduled Castes – the lowest in the caste hierarchy. According to Gothoskar, many of the workers families were forcibly or fraudulently brought to the tea gardens several generations ago. Injuries are common, as are respiratory and water-borne diseases.
Although India’s 1951 Plantation Labour Act 1951 requires owners to pay minimum wage and to provide basic medical care, clean drinking water, sanitation (toilets) and a “provident fund” for workers who become unemployed, none of these conditions are enforced despite decades of unionization. At present the average wage of the majority of tea pluckers is less than 55 rupees a day (US$2), as against Assam’s minimum wage of 100 rupees per day.
As Gothoskar also explains in her article, most unions in India, including those representing the tea estates, are affiliated with and controlled by political parties. Even though women workers constitute the majority of the tea plantation workforce, the top union leadership that sets policy and participates in collective bargaining consists almost entirely of non-tea worker, middle class men. She also notes that although physical and sexual violence against women are extremely common on tea plantations, union leaders refuse to recognize it as a union issue.
A Virtual Death Sentence
Although reports from UNICEF and other human rights organizations document the routine malnutrition and starvation-related deaths that occur on the Assam tea plantations, it’s impossible to justify what these women did – either morally or strategically. Killing the plantation owner will most certainly cost them their jobs (as well as landing some of them in prison). Fire setting and other extreme labor unrest has already led to the closure of several Assam tea estates, including Rani Tea Estate where Bhattacharya shot and killed the 15 year old. At the same time, there is no question their desperate actions arose from a sense of absolute powerless in the face of virtual serfdom, as well as the bribery, corruption, sexism and racism that plagues the Assam police, government authorities and even union officials.
It’s a pity the corporate media doesn’t tell us any of this. We frequently read and hear about similar “senseless” violence in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq – where desperate people who have exhausted all their options blow themselves up to strike a blow against the people who oppress them. The psychological profiles of gunmen involved in recent rage massacres suggest that here, too, we are dealing with profoundly desperate people who believe they have no other alternative – and, more importantly, that they have nothing to lose.
Society’s Pathological Response to Violence
In a rational world, community and political leaders would be more mindful of the lethal effect of desperation on human behavior. We would also be far less cavalier about ignoring human exploitation and oppression to fulfill corporate demands for ever increasing profit. Sadly with the global economic downturn and growing income inequality, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. As the corporate elite rushes to dismantle all the federal and state regulations that used to soften the brutality of raw corporate capitalism, you get the sense they are pursuing some misguided scorched earth strategy to squeeze every last ounce of wealth out of the global economy before the whole house of cards collapses.
Meanwhile the corporate media prefers to sweep the industrial dispute at the Assam tea plantation under the rug, unlike Newtown and the other rage massacres they cover ad nauseum. With American union membership at an all time low, heaven forbid increasingly desperate US workers should get any ideas.