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The Mat Unravels

Trade Unions

new internationalist
issue 241 - March 1993

The mat unravels
Consorting with an industrialist produces some unexpected
insights into Kerala’s ‘labour problem’...

Blue, yellow, red. Primary colours vibrate in the old port of Fort Cochin. Shipping agents and traders do deals in small open-fronted shops in the narrow winding streets by the sea’s edge — talking over neat piles of rice, spice and bidis.

This place is a microcosm of the cultural influences that make up present day Kerala. The shop names are Hindu, Muslim, Syrian, Portuguese, Anglo-Saxon, Jewish. In fact the busiest area is the brilliant warren of streets called Jew Town – at the heart of which is the 2,000-year-old site of a synagogue. The great Chinese fishing nets rise and fall with monotonous regularity while in the background the modern port of Cochin enters the fifteenth day of a strike over containerization.

But what puzzles me right now is what is going on behind the big metal gates of a waterside concern calling itself Prima. I can see women and men in a courtyard heaving golden brown bales which I take to be coir – coconut fibre – to be made into doormats.

I know that it was coir workers who created the first trade unions in Kerala. I also know that coir employs half a million people and accounts for nearly one-fifth of Kerala’s exports.

So what, I wonder, is the situation of coir workers today? What have they reaped from the changes wrought by their parents and grandparents?

After a few attempts I get past the guard at the gate and find myself being led down a corridor of Prima’s HQ. The powerful fans make a pleasant respite from the heat outside.

In his large office is Mr Mathew Joseph, Managing Director. We get talking about Kerala’s infamous ‘labour problem’. It is commonly said in India that Kerala is over-politicized; its unions are too militant; its workers are paid too much; and there are too many strikes. That’s why nobody wants to invest here, the theory runs. Even Keralites who have made their fortunes in the Gulf don’t want to.

Is it true that you can’t do business in Kerala? Mathew Joseph shakes his head and smiles. ‘North Indians say that. They are used to getting workers for 15 or 16 rupees a day, who live on the streets and don’t know their rights. You don’t get that in Kerala. Labour is expensive here but you can do business and if you are prepared to pay decent wages you won’t get strikes.’

Prima pay their workers 60-70 rupees a day — about 50 per cent above the state legal minimum — with equal pay for men and women. ‘We have good industrial relations because it’s a family business for everyone. Everyone here inherits their parents’ jobs as I inherited mine.’

Most of the workers belong to the communist agricultural workers’ union, whose leader is described by Mathew Joseph as ‘a true communist’ who ‘lives a simple life and is incorruptible’.

Sounds good so far — and it gets better.

‘We are exporting a lot more coir now because it appeals to the “green” market — especially in Europe. Coir products are completely natural — no synthetics are used. They are handmade, labour intensive and biodegradable.’

Can I see how they are produced? Can I talk to some of the workers? Sure.

We set out the next day. Mathew Joseph has decided to accompany me. The worker-friendly, eco-friendly mat begins to unravel just a little when we arrive at the first factory just outside Alleppey. In the middle of a vast room is a new mechanized loom. But I thought the mats were handmade...?

Coconut-tree climber: 'Of course I belong to a union... it's the communist agricultural workers' union'.

‘We are moving over to mechanization slowly,’ Mathew Joseph explains. ‘If we went straight for full mechanization we could get a loom that could be operated by one man instead of ten. This loom can be operated by two instead of four.’

Won’t there be job losses?

‘Not immediately,’ says Mathew Joseph. ‘But in five or six years time we may have to shed about 30 per cent of the staff.’

We leave the factory and set out for the next location, picking up a man called Joy Varghese on the way. He starts telling us about a big problem he’s got. His father died a year ago and he needs to find dowries for his four sisters. We stop at the family home and meet his mother, who says she disapproves of the dowry system. What do her friends think about it? She looks shocked. ‘Oh, we do not discuss such things with friends. These are private, family matters.’

Joy Varghese begins to fit into the jigsaw as I learn that he is a subcontractor to Prima. He has 60 workers. Prima directly employs only 550 workers — indirectly about 25,000 are employed, Mathew Joseph now confides.

We make our way down sandy tracks through a coconut forest to Joy Varghese’s looms. An old man called PV Karanakaran is weaving. Eight years ago he had to sell his own loom to pay a bribe for his nephew to get a job. He now earns 35 rupees a day. Can he live on that? Barely, he says.

Nearby a woman called Leela is preparing coir for the loom. She earns 12 rupees a day.

What? That’s worse than the street dwellers earn in north India. ‘Yes, it’s very little,’ admits Joseph.

Does she belong to a union? No. Why not? She doesn’t want to. Her employer is known to her, she says. It isn’t necessary.

As we walk on it becomes clear that for Mathew Joseph the joy of Joy Varghese is that he ‘takes on the labour problem’. The fewer workers Prima has on its payroll the better. ‘There is always the danger that the unions will get strong again,’ he says.

Dusk is falling when we reach a plantation owned by Prima. We are greeted by another subcontractor. A tall ageing man, with an ‘I’m worried about business’ look etched into his face.

What follows is a bit of a performance. First a climber goes up the tree with extraordinary agility, feet bound together with fibre, a blade hooked on his shoulder. He brings down a big green coconut and cracks it open, revealing the husk with its inner fibre.

We then move to the ‘retting’ pools where the husks lie for four to five months to soften, naturally bathed by alternating tides of salt and fresh water. The bacteria that soften the husks live in fresh water and breed in salty.

When ready the soggy husks are pulled out of the water and taken to a group of women who beat them. This is the hardest, worst-paid job and a lot of the women suffer from a prolapsed uterus because of the squatting position they adopt.

Sarojuina is 55. She’s a fast worker and earns 18 rupees a day. ‘It’s hard to live on this — and the work is painful. But hunger is more painful,’ she says.

She does not belong to a union. Mathew Joseph tells me that many people are reluctant to join unions because they fear being branded as militants and losing their jobs.

Can this really be Kerala?

Finally I get to speak to the coconut-tree climber. How much does he earn? 90 rupees a day. Does he belong to a union? ‘Of course,’ he replies. ‘I don’t want to be exploited.’

His big ambition is for his children to get government jobs. And they might, interjects Mathew Joseph, because of the Indian Government policy of reserving a quota of jobs for people from the low or ‘scheduled’ castes.

At last. A person whom radical reform has invested with confidence and self-esteem — enough to make him feel he has the right to a living wage and to have plans and ambitions.

Otherwise what happens? Mathew Joseph passes the labour problem onto Joy Varghese and Joy Varghese passes his dowry problem on to the women who are beating their uteruses into prolapse for the sum of 18 rupees a day.

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New Internationalist issue 241 magazine cover This article is from the March 1993 issue of New Internationalist.
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