NEW DELHI: After successfully laying siege to the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations, the largest tea estate in Munnar, Kerala, and thus securing themselves a much fought for bonus, the women workers of the plantation have now decided to form a trade union of their own by the end of this week.

The Pembila Orumai (unity of women) has decided to break away from traditional trade unions, whose leaders they have accused of living a luxurious life while workers who toil for a measly wages, live in hutments without even basic facilities. This step by women workers, who make the bulk of the tea-pluckers in the plantations, has challenged the authorities of the trade unions who thus far have been complaisantly avoiding the much demanded wage hike while conniving with the proprietors.

The agitation helmed by the women workers started with a demand for a 20 per cent bonus, instead of a regular 19 per cent, which too was reduced this year to 10 per cent attributed to a fall in the auction prices of the tea, according to the management. It began in the first week of September with thousands of women daily wagers coming out on the streets of the otherwise calm hilly district, leading to an impasse between workers and the management. The thaw came when the state Chief Minister Ooman Chandy intervened and directed the management to raise the bonus to 20 per cent, breaking it into 8.33 % bonus and rest in ex-gratia payment, as per discretion.

Although not a very big breakthrough, the coming together of women against the hitherto dominant trade unions and apathetic management is seen as a major development in terms of bringing autonomy to their status as a separate group.

Trade unions’ majors have acknowledged being caught unawares and failing to gauge the resentment among women workers.

“It is clear that, in general, we have also got swayed by the management’s argument that it is having a difficult time and that if we drive hard bargains, the estates and factories would have to be shut down. We should not back off fearing such consequences. We should be able to argue the workers' case effectively. They are our constituency. The bourgeoisie and the middle class may come with us temporarily, but our strength is in the working class. Like the women of Munnar, they would have stood by us even if the police had opened fire,” Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) State president Anathalavattom Anandan told The Hindu on Monday.

The women leaders will now be meeting the workers from all tea plantations and spread the word. It is certain that the leader of the new body will be a woman.

Most of the workers in plantations are women, who haven’t been to job since the agitation started. Men usually are employed as drivers and guards.