In the last of our series of articles on women’s struggles from across the world to mark International Women’s Day, Rashme Madhavan reports from India.
On the 8th of March, the capitalist media and the profit-making businesses resorted to their marketing stunts and advertising tactics. Slogans like “women power” and “women’s empowerment” made the rounds, as usual. Sloganeering and celebrating women for a few days is being followed as a custom.
But what is the real condition of women in India? Women are being exploited like never before. When dealing with the question of ‘problems faced by women’ – sexual abuse is mentioned time and again. Yes, this problem needs to be given plenty of attention. But the capitalist media-houses treat it like the only “problem women face”. Depriving them of their hard-won rights and workplace harassment are two of the other important problems women face today.
Though this situation is not specific to India, the conditions in South Asian countries have worsened over the years. But the political situation, together with the practical situation women find themselves in, has pushed women across India to fight for their rights.
The fighting spirit of working women: Kerala
The Munnar Plantation strike, in 2015, was a nine-day strike led by the women of the Munnar Kannan estate of Devan Hills Plantations Limited (KDHPL). The majority of the participants were women and it led to the formation of an all-women union – Pembilai Orumai (Women’s Unity).
The salary of plantation workers in Kerala is decided by the Plantation Labour Committee (PLC). The PLC comprises representatives of trade unions, plantation management, and the government. Meetings and negotiations are possible only if the labour minister takes the initiative.
The historic strike began on September 6 with about 5,000 workers, the majority being women, agitating in front of the KDHPL office. Management has cut down the bonus to ten percent, compared with 20 percent the previous year, citing dips in profit and falling tea prices. This was despite the daily wage being a mere Rs.230 ($ 3.17) for 12 hours of labour and the fact that the daily output per worker had increased from 21 kilograms to 31 kilograms. As per a news report on NDTV (Indian News website), the women workers’ payment fluctuated between Rs.170 to Rs.230 a day.
The main demands of the workers were for a hike in wages from Rs.230 to Rs.500. One of the most important facts about this strike is that the agitation was led and organised by the women workers. They steadfastly refused to allow men into it, citing reasons such as that they were easily swayed by alcohol. Also, it is the women who do the actual work of plucking the leaves and carrying and loading the trucks. They are the ones who suffer great occupational hazards such as knee damage and pesticide inhalation.
Another noteworthy thing about the strike is that the women workers banished well-established trade unions from participating in the strike. This includes the country’s biggest trade unions, such as AITUC (All India Trade Union Congress, run by the Communist Party of India), the Indian National Trade Union Congress run by the Congress Party, and the Confederation of Indian Trade Unions run by the Marxist Communist Party (CPM). This is also a clear example of how betrayed workers feel by the trade unions that come from the Stalinist tradition.
After the nine-day strike, the government eventually intervened and conducted negotiations with the striking workers, led by the all-women union, Pembilai Orumai. Their demands were finally met. This strike is referred to as a turning point in Kerala’s political history. After the success of this strike, similar strikes were soon called by women workers at other places, including Harrisons Malayalam Ltd’s tea estates in the Idukki and Wayanad districts of Kerala.
In Karnataka, garment workers get paid a minimum wage of around Rs. 8,000 a month – 25% below the urban poverty line of Rs. 10,800 a month, according to the Rangarajan Committee report. In Bangalore (capital of Karnataka), there are around 1,200 garment units, which employ around 45,000 workers.
The majority of the textile workers are women. These women used to get very meager wages before joining the factories. Many of the women who came from a rural background felt that the Rs. 8,000 or so is comparatively better than what they used to get. With this regular salary, they felt they would be able to educate their children, pay their house rent, and cover their household expenditure.
In a place like India, you need to pay a hefty amount to get good quality education and healthcare. So these women put up with harassment in the workplace in order to take home a regular income. They see educating their children as a tool for overcoming poverty and oppression. In many broken families, women are the sole breadwinner of the house. In a few cases, women also take care of their partners’ financial needs. So sending children to a ‘good school’ is one of their great desires.
The paltry wage provided to women workers in a factory doesn’t amount to much by itself. It is the steady nature of wages – i.e. the certainty of a monthly wage—that provides women the confidence to take out loans. Most loans are borrowed from ‘kendras’ – the village-level entity of the widespread big business of rural micro-finance. These loans have enabled women to make modest, incremental changes to their life but, over time, their debts have accumulated.
This is how the illegal layoff measures taken during the pandemic put their lives into question. According to the ‘Feminism India’ report, the desperation women workers felt at the sudden layoffs announced at their factories prompted one of the longest protests in the garment industry in India in recent times.
In Mandya, with the help of the GATWU (Garment and Textile Workers Union) women sustained a 50 days protest. But the most challenging part of the struggle was to help workers resist familial, societal, and factory management pressures. As sit-in protests became difficult due to the increase in COVID-19 cases in the city, worker-leaders started WhatsApp groups to provide updates on the negotiations conducted by the union.
At the end of 50 days, most workers left the job, after the company offered them enhanced compensation packages. These were nearly two to four times higher than what their colleagues, who resigned during the protests had got. Although the factory remains closed at the moment, the enhanced compensation packages are a sign of what an organised workforce can win for itself in the face of arbitrary and illegal action by stubborn management.
Firstly, about the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). It threatens women in a much larger way than men. Women – not only from national minorities but across different sections of society – started to feel the fear of being disenfranchised. Hence, the threat of losing the right to vote or having citizenship nullified made a deep impact.
It is a matter of survival for women in higher studies, who know what it has taken them to have finally found a voice. Therefore, they are much keener to resist the law. So, this was a sustained political agitation led by young women. The mass sit-down demonstrations across India resulted from this and involved older women, as well as men. Although the protests were cut across and stopped due to the world pandemic, the fighting spirit of women is still very high.
Secondly, women have been taking an active part in the Delhi farmers’ protest. On International Working Women’s Day, women farmers held protest marches and delivered speeches at the Singhu, Tikri, and Ghazipur protest sites in Delhi.
The stage was managed by women, the speakers were all women and the issues that were discussed were of both farming in general and women farmers more specifically.
Importance of women getting organised
The above-mentioned struggles explain the importance of being organised and in a union. We say: ‘No to discrimination on any grounds! Yes to equal pay for work of equal value. Down with the reactionary Modi government! ‘
Working-class women, men, and young people must collectively join forces and fight against the profit-making system of capitalism with strong democratic fighting organisations and a programme to fight for socialism.