Women Workers & Industrial Relations in Tea Estates of Assam.

AuthorDuara, Mridusmita


Tea plantation industry is a labor intensive one which employs lakhs of workers in almost all facets of tea production: planting, plucking leaves, pruning, spraying pesticides, functioning of machines in the factories, feeding the leaves into machines, up to transferring, packaging and others (Awasthi, 1975). Employment patterns of most women workers clearly reflect a sexual division of labor that gives men and women different roles in relation to the family and domestic organization.

Since the time of migration of the Adivasi workers into the region, the plantation workers have been made to settle in the tea estates in the state (Bhowmik, 1981). The process of migration of the Adivasi community that has been taking place since the colonial era into the plantations was based on factors of pull and push. They were lured into the region with false assurances of good pay and better living conditions. To understand class in the tea industry in Assam, it is important to understand the gender relations existing in this sector of work and also in their domestic front.

This paper attempts to analyze the gender relations existing in the tea estates in Assam, rigid sexual division of labor at work place as well as home, efficiency of the trade unions in dealing with women's issues, lack of welfare and health provisions and legislation for women workers. Women form more than fifty percent of the total workforce of the tea plantation industry in Assam. They are mostly entrusted with particular set of work mostly plucking and pruning which are tagged as requiring feminine attributes and skills; thus establishing gendered division of work in the tea plantation sector. Patriarchal dominance is seen in the plantation industry. The 'planter-manager-sahib' symbol is clearly visible among the plantation workers. Discrimination in pay between the male and the female tea plantation workers was prevalent for a long duration of time. Women face various kinds of harassment at work and in the labor lines. Their issues are hardly dealt with by the members of the trade unions or the 'line supervisors'. The unions play a less significant role in seeking justice for the women workers when there is violation of their rights or in cases of abuses. Generations of oppression have almost brought about an acceptance of the gendered injustices prevalent in the plantation industry. There are huge numbers of casual and permanent women workers in this sector.

Table 1 shows the number of women workers interviewed for the study from each district. The total number of women workers is 37 of the total 95 respondents interviewed for the study. Women who are temporary as well as permanent workers in the tea estates or the factory and hold no membership of the trade unions are 28. There are a total number of 9 women respondents who are members of the trade unions in the estates.

The tea industry employs both skilled and unskilled workers. According to Munro (1999), the concept of 'skill' is a socially defined one. It has been historically witnessed that even in sectors where men's and women's jobs were technically on the same skill level, women's jobs were ranked lower on grading structures. Male workers and employees have a vested interest in maintaining superiority over women in a system where they are already subjected to domination by owners of the estates. It is unacceptable for a male worker to be answerable to a woman supervisor.

In Fig. 1, it is seen that there are only male respondents in the Management category interviewed for the study. There are no female employees at the management level and the tea industry is a male dominated sector of work. Very few women workers hold membership in the trade unions though they form a major workforce in this sector and thus their issues are hardly represented in the meetings of the trade unions. Women workers are engaged in the plantation work both as permanent and casual workers.

Sexual Division of Labor

The plantation industry in general is one which has structured division of labor based on gender. The tea industry in Assam is also no exception to this. Scott and Marshall (2009) define sexual division of labor as a term referring to the specialized gender roles of male breadwinner and female housewife. The work in plantations had very neatly spelt out gender-specific domains where the crucial labor-intensive task of plucking tea leaves was said to be 'quintessentially feminine, requiring nimble fingers.' This particular division of labor by sex is usually associated with the separation of workplace from home which followed industrialization in the West. Research shows that most pre-industrial societies also distinguish men's tasks from women's tasks. Moore's (1995) study on occupational sex segregation highlights two major issues in connection with this. Firstly, the sex-based division of labor prohibits women's participation in certain work sectors that are considered 'stereotypically male jobs.' These jobs are usually highly paid compared to other jobs. Secondly, women's work usually goes unrecognized and unrewarded. Again within Marxist feminism, domestic labor is sometimes referred to as 'reproductive labor.' Such division of labor is considered an important basis for inequality between sexes, entailing some degree of exploitation of women by men. Feminists assert that sex roles are essentially a way of keeping women subservient to men and are the result of a patriarchal society in which men preserve their own self-interest by maintaining a status-quo. In the plantation industry too there has been and still exists sex-based division of labor.

Patriarchy & Oppression

Patriarchy in general refers to the power relations by which men dominate women (Munro, 1999). The tea plantation industry in general employs more than fifty percent of women workers for its production process. The terminology commonly used by the Coolie is maai-baap meaning mother and father to refer to the planters, owners or the managers of the tea estates (Chatterjee, 2001). Socialist feminism postulates that women are exploited by the capitalist system both at workplace and at home (Smith, 1977). The intersectionality of gender and class is clearly evident in the tea estates as across class, women have been placed at a subordinate position in the tea estates. It can be assessed that in the matters of gendered division of work, there is the female workers' "Glass- Ceiling" effect on the vertical immobility, marginalization in the trade union activities and non-implementation of the basic social security measures for women workers' welfare in the tea estates.


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