Problems of Migrated Plantation Workers
A case study


Prof. Dileep Kumar M.
E- mail:

I am Sali, a 30-year-old plantation woman worker, staying at one of the private management owned, Thellar Tea Estate*, in Munnar. My Native is at Idukki, one of the high range district of Kerala states. My husband is Verghese, a regularized plantation worker in the Thellar Tea Estate.  We have two daughters, the elder one studying in 5th standard and the younger one, a one-year baby. My six members family, with my parents, are staying in the permanent quarter of the Thellar estate. 

Long Years back, my father Verghese came here, in search of job. During those days the Thellar Tea Estate was facing acute shortage of workers for plantation labour. Though, the management recruited many workers from Teni, Thirunelveli, Thengashi like places in the Tamil Nadu state, still, the plantation labour required more workers. Since the tea plantations in Munnar were facing acute shortage of workers, my father easily got plantation work in Thellar Tea Estate. More over the plantation management were ready to provide the basic facilities like food, shelter, cloths and a reasonable wage to the workers to ensure the their continuous stay in the tea plantations. Frankly speaking, we don't have too much property in our native place, at Idukki in Kerala. My father sold whatever assets he had at Kerala and migrated to Thellar Tea Estate as and when he got a job and small quarter for permanent settlement. The only difficulty we were to face during those days was the chilling climate of the tea plantations.

I would like to appreciate my work and tell you that work was joy to plantation workers in those days, when they were migrated here. Waking up in the morning, walking long distance in the chilled climate with other workers, by sharing each other's pleasure and pains, going to filed and engage in their work collectively. We were enjoyed the climate and the work climate, since it gives a peace of mind and happiness in the work. A better living condition, a better wage and a better work environment thus were given us a pleasurable emotional state to us. We were accustomed to the chilling climate and enjoyed the nature of work.

Let me brief you about our work. Morning 8 O' clock we have to reach at filed. To reach there in time we all have to wake up at 5 O' clock in the morning. It is my responsibility to prepare the food for the six members family. Since my mother in law is suffering from acute asthma I have to specifically take care her food and health also. My husband has to reach at field at around 7.30 in the morning. Since the field is 4-5 kilometers away from the quarters I have to leave at 7.00 in the morning. My nature of work is to collect the tender leaves of the tea plant ('Kilunth Nullal') from the field. I have to collect 18 kilos of tender leave every day from the field. For additional collection of leaves incentives are given. For additional collection of tender leaves, which is beyond 18 Kg, the management fixes 50 ps/Kg as incentives. Since money is a motivational factor for daily sustenance, we used to collect 25-30 kgs of leaves every day.  My husband and myself are getting better income from the plantation work.

As I have already mentioned the past management was so keen in making provision of all the welfare, health facilities and financial assistance to the labourers. The management believes that the healthy worker is very important for day-to-day plantation work. The management has given raincoats and woolen to the workers during rainy season. They have given assistance to employees by making provision of 50 Rs for collection of food grains from the ration shop. Though, some time we had to face delay in the payment but management made the part payment to take care of the family needs. The management was prompt in giving incentives to the additional work.  There is no unnecessary hassle between workers and management there is a trust o the part of labourers towards the management. The union practices are constructive and supportive to the management. The management is so considerative to the workers as they are committed to work and shown their integrity to the organisation. They have given assistance to the education of the children. Company started a crèche near by the quarters and appointed some supervisory ladies to look after the children of workers. The management is giving free food and milk to the children in the crèche. They used to provide company vehicle to take the sick workers to the hospitals, in the emergency. For the permanent worker they initiated the provident fund also. The workers are having high trust and confidence on the management.  People can share their pain and pleasure to the management since there is congenial relationship exists between workers and management.

Let me tell you, the entire crisis started as soon as the change of leadership has happened five years back. The past leaders and management have gone. The new management and leadership have taken up the estate. The plight of the laborers started as and when the change over of ownership happened. The new management communicated to the workers that the organisation is facing the severe financial crisis of rupees 5 corers because of the too much of welfare provisions and benefits have given to the workers, by the past management. They informed the workers their difficulty to increase their payment, in the coming 7 years to curb the financial out lay. To curb the financial liability it is intimated by the management to the workers that that the organisation will have to go for downsizing. They announced the decision to go for voluntary retirement scheme to the permanent employees. To the temporary workers, they asked to leave the company within a period of 5 months. They also have taken decision to cut down current welfare facilities in the coming years. Management asked the workers to collect more kilos of tea leaves every day and they increased the working hours. They asked the workers to work more to secure their job in future.  The change of leadership has thus inculcated 'change of belief' among workers and they feel insecure about their work and future.

Management rescheduled the working time from morning 7 O' clock to 3 O' Clock. Labourers have to leave their home to work at arrround 6.30 in the morning. The workers have to reach in time in the field. They reduced the wages of the latecomers. Management tightened the work supervision. The informal sharing and social interaction are not entertained in the field. The supervisors started using abusive languages on workers in their task performance. The rebel labourers are sent to distance places, in order to give punishment massage to the other workers. The family members work together are separated in the work, to avoid unnecessary interaction at work.  They increased the minimum collection of tea leave from 18 kg to 25 Kg. The casual leave, sickness leaves etc like available leaves have barred. No consideration is given in work to the members having illness. More over, giving raincoats and woolen in the rainy season, to the workers is scraped.

The management has taken several additional steps to curb the excess financial outlay. These can be detailed as follows.

* Weekly 50 Rs for the ration allowance is stopped.
* Reduced the present wage from 80 rupees per day to 53 rupees per day.
* Incentive system is stopped
* Delayed payment to the workers
* Delayed bonus
* Running crèche for the workers children is stopped
* Voluntary retirement scheme is announced
* Union activities is totally denied
* Educational assistance to the worker's children stopped
* Women education not entertained
* Those families among which three members are employed in the plantation are asked to reduce it to two members.
* Company vehicles are not allowed to take the sick labourers to the hospital
* Work is prominent than welfare
I would like to tell you some strange incidents happened against the workers, widely supported by the present management.
* The management sought the help of goondas" to evacuate the plantation workers from the quarters.
* Union leaders are silent to the management actions
* Women labourers sexual harassment at work
* New recruitment even after downsizing
* Indiscrimination on the wages between male and female workers
* Stringent disciplinary measures
* Power supply is cut down to the laborer's quarters.

Let me share, how the change of leadership has created fear and anxiety among workers in the plantation. The change of leadership and the attitude of management is developed deep insecurity feeling among worker. The delayed payment of their wages, severely affected to materialize worker's existential needs. Many time workers have to borrow money from moneylenders to meet their basic needs. The education of the workers children is now at stake. The sickness status of the estate labourers is going up. Since the work pressure is heavy and there is no return, many workers are decided to quit their job. Specifically, those who migrated from distant places are the victims of these stringent measures taken by the management. Neither they have any house in their native nor here in the estate. Their job is insecure and future of their family is at stake. The union leaders show their indirect support to the management in many steps they have taken. There is high dilution of the trust and confidence; the workers have on the union leadership. The worker's feel insecure, as there is no social and economic support to meet their existential needs either from the management or union organisation.

The workers believe that all the steps management has taken to implement their own whims and fancies. They wanted to appoint their own labourers.  All the work pressure thus created is to evacuate the present labourers from the plantation and there by appoint new labourers. They still believe that the company is running with profit.

I would like to tell you about our concern. Look upon the workers of the tea plantations. We oozed our sweat and blood to the organisation to which we work for. In return company is creating severe hardships to our day-to-day life.  We don't have any one in our native places. Where will we go if management knocks out us from here? How our children will study? What about our sick parents and relatives? How we protect them? How we care our children? We don't know what to do…No job, no wage and there by no life to the plantation labourers.

You might have heard the strikes in the plantation that went on smoothly in the last month. Let me tell you that, the strike in the plantation is situational than intentional. In order to prevent management action against the workers, the plantation labourers of the Thellar Tea Estate united together one day and some of the workers emerged as leaders from within. They called one-day strike against the management pointing out the issues at work. But the management continued their reluctance further. The workers started one week strike. The workers are of the belief that, nothing to loose with this strike than some gains. In a 'do or die' situation there is no choice left to workers, but to fight against the management. The difference in the nature of strike here is that strike is done not for the luxurious needs but for getting the existential needs. We got the result we expected. When management realized the fact that the production is getting affected because of strike, they loosened their stand against the labourers, though with severe antagonistic attitude. The groups thus formed prevented further recruitment in the company. It blocked the company's move against the downsizing. Through negotiation, they ensured the fair wages to the plantation workers. They made an agreement with the management in the incentive system, and several other basic needs. Though management doesn't roll back majority of their stringent measures, they have shown their changes in their treatment and understanding. 

Let me ask you few questions…. Why the management compelled workers to go for agitation to get things done? Is 'strike' is the only weapon to get justice here in this country for the workers? How people in the look upon labour laws? Do the workers get any better living condition with the labour laws existing in the plantations? Who cares the plantation workers? Do all management is here to fight with workers? Is this the real function of management? Is there any hope to the plantation labourers from the government side?

Leaving her several question aside….Sali ends up her 'story of agitation' here….


1. Discuss the plight of plantation labourers?
2. How the leadership style varied in this case. Relate the case with content theories and process theories of leadership.
3. What are the factors affecting the work motivation of plantation labourers?
4. How the work motivation and work behaviour is affected by the managerial approaches.
5. The membership of trade union organisations are reducing day by day' (HMS, BMS). Discuss the leadership issues.
6. Which are the areas in which management violates the Plantation Labour Act 1956?
7. Which are the areas in which management violates the Minimum Wages Act 1948?
8. Do you believe that leaders are born than made? Substantiate your comment?
9. Find out the reasons of collective workers movement?
10. Where there is no promotion and no work enrichment, how the workers motivation can be improved.

Prof. Dileep Kumar M.
E- mail:

Source: E-mail February 10, 2006


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