Social Documentary Photography – Female Labor Force Changes In Kerala, India

Bavani (central) changes from her day working clothes and enjoys a cup of tea with her extended family. Many of the workers live in housing provided and tied to the company which are known as the ‘line’ as in, in-line housing.

This social documentary photography was submitted to Edge of Humanity Magazine by Photojournalist Alexander Walker.

 

Click on any image to see Alexander’s portfolio and projects.

 

From project “On The Line” by Alexander Walker.

 

Women’s rights are a contentious issue around the world and in India where it has recently come to the fore again in the killing of a tea plantation owner and his wife in the Assam region in the north.  The tea industry, in India, is heavily dominated by a female workforce but in the state of Kerala, which has been vigorously promoting the rights of women for many years, it has led to unexpected problems for the industry.

 

One of the field workers being given her daily wages. Workers are paid on a weekly basis but their typical earnings are the equivalent of US $2 per day although some unscrupulous plantations in the north of the country pay less than minimum wages.

One of the field workers being given her daily wages. Workers are paid on a weekly basis but their typical earnings are the equivalent of US $2 per day although some unscrupulous plantations in the north of the country pay less than minimum wages.

A female tea plucker working in one of the vast tea fields on the estate. The women are expected to pick 23kg per day and work a 6 day week. Traditionally this is a lowly paid job dominated by women.

A female tea plucker working in one of the vast tea fields on the estate. The women are expected to pick 23kg per day and work a 6 days week. Traditionally this is a lowly paid job dominated by women.

Bavani (39 years) makes her way home after a days work in the fields. The women work on extremely humid conditions with temperatures usually in the high 30 degrees Celsius. Their clothing is to protect their head from the weather and also protect their backs from the heavy loads they have to carry during the day.

Bavani (39 years) makes her way home after a days work in the fields. The women work in extremely humid conditions with temperatures usually in the high 30 degrees Celsius. Their clothing is to protect their head from the weather and also protect their backs from the heavy loads they have to carry during the day.

Visinanathan, a leaf loader, collects the freshly plucked tea leaves twice a day transporting them to the main estate factory for processing. The women are expected to pick 23kg per day and work a 6 day week. Traditionally this is a lowly paid job. Although women comprise of over half the workforce on tea estates, there is still a sizable disparity between their numbers and those holding managerial positions.

Visinanathan, a leaf loader, collects the freshly plucked tea leaves twice a day transporting them to the main estate factory for processing. The women are expected to pick 23kg per day and work a 6 day week. Traditionally this is a lowly paid job. Although women comprise of over half the workforce on tea estates, there is still a sizable disparity between their numbers and those holding managerial positions.

A male field watcher oversees the work of the women tea puckers, weighing in the sacks of leaf both late morning and evening before collection to ensure the women are meeting their daily quota.

A male field watcher oversees the work of the women tea puckers, weighing in the sacks of leaf both late morning and evening before collection to ensure the women are meeting their daily quota.

Lalitha, a factory worker sorts the freshly dried leaves in one of the many large drying troughs. Unlike the field work, which is dominated by women, the manufacturing process employs both males and females on an equal wage structure introduced by Kerala state law.

Lalitha, a factory worker sorts the freshly dried leaves in one of the many large drying troughs. Unlike the field work, which is dominated by women, the manufacturing process employs both males and females on an equal wage structure introduced by Kerala state law.

Valsala, who works in the factory wears a protective mask to prevent inhalation of tea dust from the CTC (Cut Tear & curl) process. The estate provides all its factory workers with appropriate protective clothing as part of their comprehensive health and welfare scheme.

Valsala, who works in the factory wears a protective mask to prevent inhalation of tea dust from the CTC (Cut Tear & curl) process. The estate provides all its factory workers with appropriate protective clothing as part of their comprehensive health and welfare scheme.

Women manually soak dried leaves before they are sent into a shredder and progress on to the CTC process. Similarly, as in the fields, there is a distinct absence of younger women, with the average age being around 35, it is the older women who are undertaking this work. None of the younger generation are interested in working in this comparatively lowly paid and unskilled industry.

Women manually soak dried leaves before they are sent into a shredder and progress on to the CTC process. Similarly, as in the fields, there is a distinct absence of younger women, with the average age being around 35, it is the older women who are undertaking this work. None of the younger generation are interested in working in this comparatively lowly paid and unskilled industry.

 

The state, in south-west India, has for decades had its politics rooted in socialism, having in 1957 become the first state in the world to democratically elect a communist government.  In relation to its population, this has meant they have reaped huge benefits in terms of welfare, education levels and high quality of life.  For women, this has meant the realisation of parity in education and wages.  The state took a step further in 2009 by instigating a “Gender Board” which not only addresses employment opportunities for women but also their status in Kerala society.  There are however may paradoxes that exist in Kerala.  With literacy of 93%, life expectancy of 74 years, a Human Development Index higher than most developed countries it stands out as a model state.  However this is not an industrial based economy as over half of Kerala’s population dependent on agriculture for their income.  Herein lies the contradiction.

 

A hammer and sickle drawn onto the tea dust of a window in the main factory building. Kerala state had the worlds first democratically elected communist government in the 1950’s and since has been run by a coalition of communist and socialist parties. Trades unions are strong with many having over 50% women members. The state Gender Board is currently trying to ensure the empowerment of women to the decision making levels within these unions.

A hammer and sickle drawn onto the tea dust of a window in the main factory building. Kerala state had the worlds first democratically elected communist government in the 1950’s and since has been run by a coalition of communist and socialist parties. Trades unions are strong with many having over 50% women members. The state Gender Board is currently trying to ensure the empowerment of women to the decision making levels within these unions.

A girl from 10th standard takes an exam in her classroom at the Roman Catholic High School. The estate provides scholarships for those over the age of 14 to remain in school and obtain a good education. Additional incentives are provided for girls such as giving them bicycles, and other school accessories. Historically Muslim girls tended not to extend their education after this age, however these improvements have enabled this group to remain in education for longer and seek higher status employment.

A girl from 10th standard takes an exam in her classroom at the Roman Catholic High School. The estate provides scholarships for those over the age of 14 to remain in school and obtain a good education. Additional incentives are provided for girls such as giving them bicycles, and other school accessories. Historically Muslim girls tended not to extend their education after this age, however these improvements have enabled this group to remain in education for longer and seek higher status employment.

Sister Joshma finishes addressing the morning assembly at the Roman Catholic Lower Primary school (RCLP) before leading the children back to the classroom. Estate workers children, like their older brothers and sisters at the high school, are provided with free uniforms and bags from the tea estate as part of the welfare benefits. This alleviates the pressure financially for many of the workers, especially women, as they are lowly paid.

Sister Joshma finishes addressing the morning assembly at the Roman Catholic Lower Primary school (RCLP) before leading the children back to the classroom. Estate workers children, like their older brothers and sisters at the high school, are provided with free uniforms and bags from the tea estate as part of the welfare benefits. This alleviates the pressure financially for many of the workers, especially women, as they are lowly paid.

Children of the 9th Standard class at the Roman Catholic High School, undertake the daily pledge for education during the morning assembly. The state of Kerala passed in 2002 “The Right to Education Act” where all children between the age of 6 years and 14 years must be in full time education. Although the population is split 50% Hindu, 25% Christian and 25% Muslim most children, regardless of their religion are taught together.

Children of the 9th Standard class at the Roman Catholic High School, undertake the daily pledge for education during the morning assembly. The state of Kerala passed in 2002 “The Right to Education Act” where all children between the age of 6 years and 14 years must be in full time education. Although the population is split 50% Hindu, 25% Christian and 25% Muslim most children, regardless of their religion are taught together.

Sifantha, the teacher at the estate run nursery talks to the children at the start of the day. All children of estate workers, regardless of their status, are entitled to free nursery care up the age of 6 before they progress to one of the local primary schools. This measure is an estate run initiative which has helped the female workers immeasurably by caring for their children during their working hours.

Sifantha, the teacher at the estate run nursery talks to the children at the start of the day. All children of estate workers, regardless of their status, are entitled to free nursery care up the age of 6 before they progress to one of the local primary schools. This measure is an estate run initiative which has helped the female workers immeasurably by caring for their children during their working hours.

The children of the estate run nursery sit on the floor to eat their lunch. The children at the nursery are provided with both a morning snack and lunch during the day as the majority of the parents’ work from 8am to 4:30pm, six days a week regardless of weather.

The children of the estate run nursery sit on the floor to eat their lunch. The children at the nursery are provided with both a morning snack and lunch during the day as the majority of the parents’ work from 8am to 4:30pm, six days a week regardless of weather.

Sifanath helps Manshiedh (3 years old) into a pyjama shirt for his afternoon nap.

Sifanath helps Manshiedh (3 years old) into a pyjama shirt for his afternoon nap.

Women talk in one of the two wards at the estate run hospital. On sight are 2 doctors and nursing staff, as well as an operating theatre and x-ray equipment. This ensures the physical welfare of all estate families and is provided free of charge. The Kerala state government has been at the forefront of family planning initiatives bring the birth rate down to that of the United Kingdom and in fighting domestic violence with the introduction of the “Domestic Violence Act 2005” aimed at safeguarding women.

Women talk in one of the two wards at the estate run hospital. On sight are 2 doctors and nursing staff, as well as an operating theatre and x-ray equipment. This ensures the physical welfare of all estate families and is provided free of charge. The Kerala state government has been at the forefront of family planning initiatives bring the birth rate down to that of the United Kingdom and in fighting domestic violence with the introduction of the “Domestic Violence Act 2005” aimed at safeguarding women.

One of many vibrant welfare posters which is displayed clearly in the estate offices. The estate has an extremely dedicated approach to the welfare of their staff and dependents many of whom have been with them through generations. The welfare benefits they provide greatly exceed that which the state government legislates.

One of many vibrant welfare posters which is displayed clearly in the estate offices. The estate has an extremely dedicated approach to the welfare of their staff and dependents many of whom have been with them through generations. The welfare benefits they provide greatly exceed that which the state government legislates.

An office worker stands in front of welfare posters which advocates the companies underpinning of education. The new generation are 93% literate, as opposed to 30% in the 1950’s, and with children having aspirations for employment outside the industry, especially women. The promotion and funding of education has created difficulties for the company who will face a severe labour shortage in the next 10 years, which in the future may only be solved by either using migrant workers or mechanization.

An office worker stands in front of welfare posters which advocates the companies underpinning of education. The new generation are 93% literate, as opposed to 30% in the 1950’s, and with children having aspirations for employment outside the industry, especially women. The promotion and funding of education has created difficulties for the company who will face a severe labour shortage in the next 10 years.

Bavani, arriving home for a short break before leaving to attend to her evening job serving in one of the manager’s bungalows. The shortage of available female labour means that some women can supplement their income with a second job.

Bavani, arriving home for a short break before leaving to attend to her evening job serving in one of the manager’s bungalows. The shortage of available female labour means that some women can supplement their income with a second job.

 

Today’s high levels of education, in both men and women, means a mismatch between labour supply and demand.  A top heavy society has been created.  Young, educated women no longer wish to be employed in the physically demanding jobs of tea industry.  Although certain estates offers a high level of care for their employees in terms of crèches, schooling, medical care, and housing, which they might otherwise not receive, this younger generation of women have aspirations far above working long hours in the tea fields in blistering heat or driving rain carrying 30 kg loads for low wages.

The group of women workers currently employed may be the last of their generation from Chundale village to do this work  as if these positions cannot be filled from inside the community,  the company will be forced to use migrant workers from other states or turn to mechanization.

 

See also:

Homeless World Cup

Kosovo, Forgotten But Not Gone

By Alexander Walker

 


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