Around 5,000 women plantation workers-cum-owners of a Tata Group associate company-Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Company Private Ltd (KDHP) at Munnar in Kerala won their demands last Sunday night - after a nine-day action-packed agitation sans politicians and trade unions. In the process, the developments at KDHP dented the image of Tata as one of the best employers and points to fissures in its much-discussed success story of its participatory management with workers of Munnar plantations.
When plantation business fell into a crisis in 2005, the then Tata Tea (now Tata Global Beverages Limited) had formed a new company KDHP and the management control was given to workers, with each of them getting about 300 shares. The loss-making company turned around after that, as productivity increased, tea yields got better and ventured into exports and diversification.
The unusual drama started ten days ago, when women workers stormed into the dais of an all trade union meeting of KHDP workers, manhandled and chased away their own union leaders with sticks and slippers, and started a stir in front of the company. Their demand was to issue a bonus of 20 per cent and hike in wages to Rs 500 per day from the current Rs 300 plus per day, along with improving the amenities in the company-provided dwelling lanes in tea plantations.
Agitators accused the union leaders, belonging to both Communist parties and Congress, were colluding with the management to get benefits for themselves betraying interests of the workers. The migrant Tamil-dominated tea pluckers also kept their male colleagues and male members of family away from the agitation front, accusing them of heeding to the management and union leaders in the past, mainly for liquor.
Politicians from all parties who came up the hills to offer 'support' and with hopes of 'leading the agitation' were also not entertained. The only exception was former Kerala Chief Minister and State Opposition leader VS Achuthanandan, who received a warm welcome. On Sunday morning, the 92-year old CPI(M) veteran leader reached Munnar and put pressure on the Government saying he would not move from the agitation spot until the workers' demands were met. Agitators asked P K Jayalakshmi, a woman minister who came to Munnar offering support to the agitation to stay back with them till their grievances were resolved. The Congress-led state government said demands of the workers were legitimate and the management should heed to their issues. After failure of a few rounds of talks involving two state ministers, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy arrived in Kochi to lead the negotiations between company management and representatives of the agitators.
After nine hours of meetings, Government said the company management has agreed for 20 percent bonus and decision on wage hike has been tentatively agreed, subject to some statutory approvals in a few weeks.
"For financial year 2014-15, KDHP's turnover was marginally lower than previous year. Profits were lower compared to previous year due to lower realisation in South India and increase in wages reflecting wage revision during the year", says the 2014-15 annual report of Tata Global Bevarages Limitd (TGBL), which holds 28.92 per cent stake in KDHP, now an associate company of TGBL.
While phone calls made to management representatives of KDHP remained unanswered, sources in Munnar said the agitation was result of growing discontent among the plantations workers over the years. They have to work in extreme cold conditions from 8 AM in the morning to 5 PM in the evening for meagre salaries and live in lane apartments with poor facilities. As against this, their managers lead a comfortable life in British era estate bungalows with related luxurious paraphernalia, as the company's legacy dates back to 1888.
Sources say per plucker productivity is higher with KDHP plantations at about 50-53 kg, as against an industry average of 35-40 kg per plucker in other South Indian plantations. After the transfer, the 23 estates were merged into seven large estates, namely Chundavurrai, Guderale, Gundumallay, Letchmi, Madupatty, Nullatanni and Nyamakad.
If the company incurred losses of Rs 100 crore losses in 2000, KDHP posted profits after it was handed over to the employees. The turnover of Rs105.33 crore in 2005-06 increased to Rs 260.60 crore in 2012-13, producing 19-20 million kg a year. Revenue increased from Rs 122.16 crore in 2006-07 to Rs 214.48 crore by 2009-10. Profit before tax (PBT) increased from Rs 3.18 crore in 2005-06 to Rs 18.31 crore by 2008-09 and to a record Rs 50.43 crore next year. In 2012-13, the PBT was 17.57 crore.
At the time of management change, the then Tata Tea retained a nominal 19 per cent stake as a gesture to give morale support to the workers and another 7 per cent through a trust. Later, TGBL increased its stake over the years and now holds 28 per cent, besides additional 8 percent in the KDHP Trust. Each of the 12,500-plus workers was issued about 300 shares each. Tata retained the 58,742 acres of land in Anjanad and Kanan Devan Hills and gave the land to new company for a lease of 30 years, besides retaining a factory and the 'Kannan Devan tea' brand.
In response, Tata Global Beverages said,"Tata Global Beverages (TGB) is committed to the fair and ethical treatment of people. We were deeply concerned to hear about the disquiet among the workers of Kanan Devan Hills Plantations (KDHP), of which TGB is a shareholder. As a concerned shareholder we provided all required support to the Board and management of KDHP in arriving at a resolution of this matter. We are glad an amicable solution has been reached by the KDHP management and workers, and normalcy has returned. TGB founded and continues to be actively involved in a number of significant welfare initiatives in Munnar such as the Srishti Welfare centre for differently abled people, the High Range School where 50 per cent of seats are reserved for workers' children and the General Hospital which provides quality healthcare services in the region."