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Tea from Kerala: A Product of Casteism and Cruelty

As a tourist, Kerala’s Munnar tea trail with green mountains and valleys would be a sight of mesmerising beauty. But the reality of what sustains these tea plantations is a harsh one. You will see women with heavy bags of tea leaves toiling in the fields for long hours. They are paid unfairly, denied healthcare and most of them have had their uteruses removed for work. Even if their children are educated, it is a struggle for them to break through the socio-economic barriers.

The Kerala development ‘model’ that set off social and economic growth comparable to developed nations has failed to help the Dalit and Adivasi labourers. The tea plantations are sites of exploitation for them – as neoliberal forces mould the Indian tea industry.

History of Dalit Labour in Kerala.

In the 1860s, Tamil-speaking Dalit workers were brought to the colonial plantations in the erstwhile state of Travancore (present-day Kerala). An enchanting, colourful picture of life at the plantations was sold to the workers. However, these labourers were sent to the tea plantations under the indentured labour system - a softer version of slavery.

The ‘Kanganis’ or labour contractors cum supervisors recruited workers from their villages as professional agents of the plantation companies. The workers had to sign a legal contract with a specific plantation company – they would get an advance to pay off their debts back home in exchange for working for the company.

Their working conditions were arduous with no ample housing and sanitation facilities. Many workers lost their lives to malaria, fever and dysentery while clearing the forests for the plantations. The amount of work extracted out of them was dehumanising, and they were denigrated in cases of setbacks.

The stipulated time period under the contract would generally be five years. However, these workers were forced to stay even after their contract period lapsed. The Travancore Criminal Breach of Contract Act 1865 made it a crime for these bonded labourers to break their contracts.

The world soon realised that the indenture system was just a ‘new form of slavery’ and called to abolish it. The system’s abolishment and the end of India’s colonial area changed some dynamics on the plantations - albeit the exploitation continued.

By the mid-twentieth century, power shifted to the Indian capitalists from dominant caste groups such as Brahmins, Syrian-Christians and some from the Nadar caste. They successfully lobbied for land ownership of the plantations, while land rights for the plantation workers were not even up for discussion.

The Plantation Labour Act of 1951 offered a modicum of security and welfare to the plantation workers. The act mandated water supply, healthcare, school education for their children, paid maternity leave and much more. They were not given water supply and compensation for accidents until the 1970s.

By the mid-1990s, some benefits such as healthcare were suspended blaming the economic crisis that hit the tea industry. The reason for the crisis boiled down to neoliberal structural adjustments to the international tea trade. The increased cost of production decreased productivity of tea bushes and heavy export duty added fuel to the crisis.

Between 2010-11, several estates saw a transfer in ownership to new companies that altered the rules of the plantations. Jobs were left vacant, temporary and casual employment took over permanent contracts, workload and punishments were intensified. The workers were frequently not paid on time and claimed that the companies minted money by curbing their wages.

Casualisation of the workforce.

A sense of ‘psychological alienation’ was drilled into the workers through unfair wages, suspension of welfare measures and casualisation of the workforce. This resulted in the feminisation of the workforce for mainly tea-plucking and young people moving out of the plantations.

By 2015, more than three-fourth of the male workers and two-thirds of women workers had shifted to other work - mostly unskilled manual work.

The outcaste identity of the Tamil Dalit workers due to their origin as indentured labourers, and the anti-Tamil Prejudice in Kerala makes them vulnerable. Even for the better-educated plantation workers occupying higher positions in the plantations is a rare occurrence. The stigma and discrimination make sure that they reside at the lowest rungs of society.

As Tamil Dalit workers leave the plantations, a more vulnerable workforce is brought to undermine labour and reduce the production cost. The workforce now also includes Adivasi migrant workers from Jharkhand and Muslim Workers from Assam.

The ‘social cost of production’ of Tamil Dalit workers is more as most of them have permanent status, as opposed to the casualised migrant labourers. These super-exploitable labourers are denied annual leave, medical leave and several other benefits.

The trade unions of the plantations are also caught in factionalism and divide-and-rule policies. The workers lack a voice because they don't have their own representatives in the trade unions.

In 2016, Kerala Tamil Dalit women workers of the Munnar tea belt organised a month-long strike. The Pembillai Orumai strike challenged the trade unions, plantation owners and the labour departments.

The movement was also against the acclaimed Kerala model of development and the ethnic stereotypes infused in it. Plantation workers’ rights have long been excluded from the development plans of Kerala.

The strike did not lead to material gains as political parties managed to co-opt the women protestors. However, this level of mobilisation shows a glimmer of hope for the Tea plantation workforce of Kerala.


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