ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
India's aromatic teas, from places like Darjeeling and Assam, are known all over the world. The lives of the tea pickers are less well-known. They're nearly all women, and their lives on plantations reflect the broader challenges facing women workers across India. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from the tea slopes of the southern state of Kerala.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: A ripple of voices tumbles down the hillside. A man barks orders. The women tea pickers, many in bare feet, expertly navigate the leech-infested slopes, hampers on their backs loaded with freshly-picked tea leaves as they descend for their morning tea break. It could be a scene out of the 19th century, when these estates were first cultivated.
On the mist-shrouded hills of Munnar, the manicured tea terraces sprawl across the landscape. Bushes that flourish year-round hug the curving roads. The beauty of these gardens belies the hardships of workers who produce nearly 50 million pounds of tea here a year. On large estates like this one, hundreds of workers harvest tea - some by hand, some with shears, even in the monsoon.
How do you work in all this rain?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).
MCCARTHY: "It's the job. I do it or I don't get paid," says one picker draped in clear plastic.
As night falls, we visit a group of women at home in a company-owned settlement on the grounds of an estate. In J. Rajeshwari's cramped quarters, eight women and their husbands, all sitting on a large bed, eagerly greet us. The men agree to leave, and the women lead the conversation. Rajeshwari has worked the tea estate for 26 years, and she describes life on their limited income.
J RAJESHWARI: (Through interpreter) We were earning little more than $3 a day. We couldn't feed ourselves or educate our children. I couldn't even buy a sari. I didn't have the means to raise my children. So we organized.
MCCARTHY: Nine months ago, they formed the Women's Collective. The president of that group, 48-year-old Lissy Sunny, rises in the shadowy dawn to work the tea estate until dusk. She lives with her husband in a modest three-room accommodation, provided rent-free by the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation Company. It's considered one of the most progressive employers in the industry. But after 20 years of toiling, Lissy sounds more angry than grateful as she recalls the event that triggered the women's agitation for greater compensation.
LISSY SUNNY: (Foreign language spoken).
MCCARTHY: "We worked hard from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. We wanted the company to succeed," Lissy says. "But when they cut our bonus in half last September, we said we won't work like this. We can't live like animals," she says. "We're not slaves. We need a dignified life."
Lissy says the greatest indignity was being forced to choose which of her two children to educate. There wasn't money for both. Years ago, she chose her daughter, the better student, leaving her son, Denil, to live at home and work for the tea plantation.
SUNNY: (Foreign language spoken).
MCCARTHY: "He's depressed," Lissy says, "and blames us for not giving him a proper education."
He's 29 now, and she points out that his company job is a safety net for her and her husband as they grow old.
SUNNY: (Foreign language spoken).
MCCARTHY: She explains that as long as he's here, they still have a place to live. The need for housing, Lissy says, has tethered generation after generation to the plantations. Trade union leader V.O. Shaji has a provocative name for this dependence.
V O SHAJI: (Foreign language spoken).
MCCARTHY: He calls it civilized slavery. Shaji says tea plantations pay field workers the lowest minimum daily wage of any sector in the state. The shares the company awarded workers 10 years ago give them a sense of ownership but little financial reward. That's why their bonus matters so much and why the women took extraordinary steps to restore it. They organized a strike independent of the trade unions. For decades, they belonged to the unions but now accuse them of being corrupt and ineffectual. The women went directly to senior state officials to demand and win an unprecedented increase in wages, about a dollar a day. Rajeshwari says women didn't trust the male-dominated unions to represent their interests.
RAJESHWARI: (Through interpreter) There's an ego problem. A man cannot stand and respectfully listen to a woman. They don't want to listen. So we boldly walked away. But now they are scared, and they will have to listen to us. Women have won despite these men.
MCCARTHY: Rajeshwari says decades of being dismissed by complacent patriarchal unions compelled the women to challenge the status quo.
RAJESHWARI: (Through interpreter) We gathered our courage and succeeded. It's men who ruled for the last four generations. It's men who ran the unions. For so long, it's only men. That's why we women came together.
MCCARTHY: V.O. Shaji says the unions hadn't been idle, but admits they learned a valuable lesson - include women in senior leadership. The company did not respond to repeated telephone and electronic requests for comment. The nine women we spoke with are determined to stick with their cause and cheerfully report their progress. They now pick up their own paychecks instead of their husbands. In fact, they joke their husbands are even a little afraid of them.
RAJESHWARI: (Laughter) A hundred percent.
MCCARTHY: Their slogan suggests a steely resolve - the hands that wear bangles can also carry swords. Julie McCarthy, NPR News.
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