From Kerala to Florida, women farm workers are organizing and winning!

 


Around the world, women farm workers are on the move, organizing and gaining ground for women workers everywhere. This past week, women farm workers in Kerala, in India, and Florida, in the United States, won major victories. In Kerala, tea plantation workers, all women, rejecting the direction of male dominated unions and political parties, went on strike and won! In Florida, undocumented women farm workers rejected the business-as-usual of sexual exploitation … and won! Women farm workers are turning the common sense of global food chains into global food networks and communities.

In July, the Great Place to Work Institute and People Matters rated Kanan Devan Hills Plantation, the largest tea estate in Munnar, in Kerala, as one of the best places to work in India. In early September, over 5000 plantation workers, almost all women, replied, “No!” They went on strike, demanding higher wages and bonuses. Their strike lasted nine days. During that time, the women told trade unions and political parties that [a] that male-dominated unions and parties did not represent the women’s interests sufficiently and [b] the women could negotiate for themselves.

The women allowed only four politicians to join the strike. They unconditionally welcomed 92-year-old VS Achuthanandan, a founding member of the Communist Party India (Marxist) and widely respected for his integrity. They also allowed women politicians PK Jayalakshmi, Bindhu Krishna, and Latika Subhash to join the strike, on the condition that they would stay in Munnar until the strike was resolved.

On Sunday night, the women won their bonus demands, and called off the strike. The wage demands are still being worked out.

For over 20 years, Ananthalakshmi has worked the fields: “Men hardly get tough chores like us. We even load the sacks to the trucks and are disproportionately paid”. The struggle in the Munnar hills of Kerala is for wages, bonuses, equality, women’s dignity and women’s power. By enthusiastically welcoming VS Achuthanandan, the women workers demonstrated that women’s power is principled, rigorous and courageous in its forms of inclusion.

The line of women’s power from the tea fields of Munnar to the tomatoland of Felda, Florida is long and direct. On Friday, five women vegetable packers won a $17 million sexual harassment case. The five women had worked for Moreno Farms, Inc. They said they felt terrified whenever their supervisors threatened to take them to the cooler and trailer. Their bosses groped, threatened, and raped them. When the women refused to submit, the bosses fired them. Three of the five women were raped. When they went to the local sheriff’s office to report the rapes, the sheriffs did … less than nothing. A local attorney, Victoria Mesa, stepped in and took the case, and she persuaded the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, EEOC, to represent the women.

Beatriz André, EEOC’s lead attorney in the case, said, “Having long been silenced by shame and fear, this trial offered these five women the opportunity to give voice publicly to their experiences and their desire for justice.” Robert E. Weisberg, regional attorney for the Miami office of the EEOC, added “I’m thrilled because this jury’s verdict sends a message to every other woman working in Florida’s fields. They do have rights, regardless of their immigration status.” For the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, this is a cautionary tale: “The women on Moreno Farms suffered unspeakable indignities that could have been prevented, had they been working on Fair Food Program farms.”

Moreno Farms closed in May, which means it’s unlikely that the women will see the 17 million dollars, but this is more than a symbolic victory. First, the women will receive special U visas for victims of crime who assist law enforcement in prosecuting cases. Second, the women won! Five undocumented Latinas won. This local victory is a cross-border, transnational victory, as has been noted in Mexico and beyond.

Tea and tomatoes are big global business. Over the past week, 5000 women farm workers on a tea plantation in Munnar and five women workers in a tomato processing plant in Felda have shown they are not too big to be cracked open by women’s power and mobilization for justice for workers, women, and women workers. The struggle continues!

 

(Photo Credit 1: Youth Ki Awaaz) (Photo Credit 2: Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.