Women brew a turnaround story in tea estate

Women brew a turnaround story in tea estate

Women shareholders working in the plantation. Dh Photo/R Gopakumar

At first sight, Kaaliyamma and Seethalekshmi would pass of for ordinary tea estate workers in their long shirts and colourful scarfs with sacks pegged to their backs. But impressions can be misleading. Seethalekshmi, 53, is presently the worker-director of the Kanan Devan Hill Plantations (KDHP) in which she and her co-workers hold 68 per cent shares. These women are part of a workforce, which has transformed the fortunes of the tea industry in Munnar through a novel experiment of providing workers a stake in the company.

Five years after the workers of KDHP volunteered to buy majority stake in the company, then owned by Tata Tea, there has been an incredible turnaround. From a loss of Rs eight crore when the Tatas handed over the plantations to them, the KDHP net profits touched Rs 41 crore last year. The company attributes this achievement to the newfound enthusiasm of the workers and the resounding success of the participatory model of management. 

“About 98 per cent of the 13,000 workers have picked up 68 per cent share of the company while the Tatas retain 18 per cent and a trust and others own the
remaining share,” says Mr T V Alexander, KDHP managing director. According to him, almost every worker owns a minimum of 300 shares the face value of which has almost grown five folds from Rs 10.50 in 2005 to Rs 50 now.

The crowning glory of the participatory model is the automatic elevation of the worker who clocks the best productivity levels every year as the worker-director of the company. Seethalekshmi, who holds the record of plucking 111 kg of tea a day now attends the director board meeting convened once in three months. Her high productivity means that she also gets paid Rs two per kg plucked in excess of the minimum 40-50 kg a day. No wonder that Seethalekshmi gets a monthly salary of up to Rs 11,000 including the incentives. There are many others who come close to Seethalekshmi in productivity and grab the incentives. In fact, productivity has increased by 58 per cent, from 33.3 kg per worker in 2005 to 52.6 kg in 2009-10.

“We are now aware of our own worth and how invaluable we are for the company. I am happy that it has helped rebuild our lives too,” said Seethalekshmi whose increased income helped her provide better education to her children. Her elder son is pursuing an MBA after completing his engineering from Coimbatore. Her younger son is studying bio-medical engineering. A bubbling Kaaliyamma proudly declares that her son had enrolled for a fashion designing course at Erode.

Alexander points out that KDHP would not have tasted success without the
support of the Tatas who passed on to them a culture which lays stress on
employees’ welfare. When it exited the business in Munnar in 2005, the Tatas leased out 58,000 acres of land comprising 82 divisions of seven tea plantations to KDHP for 30 years. There are 16 factories too. The Tatas have built 58 schools, a
hospital, provided free, electrified housing and about a dozen other subsidies for the workers.

No wonder then that the benefits of these welfare measures are well reflected in the exploits of the third generation children. E Stephen, son of a plucker, is now the assistant manager of one of the tea estates in Devikulam. Rema Rajeswari, daughter of the headmistress of one of the Tata schools was selected for IPS in her third attempt last year. “It is a proud moment for me since I grew up here, trudging 14 km every day to and from the Tata school where I studied in Tamil medium. I was inspired by the tales of past ICS officers who frequented our company,” says 30-year-old Rajeswari.

Stephen, 29, who pursued his studies with a Tata scholarship, decided to join the company three years ago. “I was thrilled to get this job and though I am aware that I may earn more elsewhere, I wouldn’t get the satisfaction I get here,” he says. Job satisfaction is also high at the senior management level. Chacko P Thomas, who joined Tata Tea in 1991 and now heads the non-tea operations of KDHP as GM, says the new management setup has bridged the gap between him and the company.
“Earlier, things were business like and hierarchical. Now I face real-time challenges and am more aware of the nuts and bolts of the trade,” says he.  

The management culture adopted here has also earned rich dividends for the company. If it was a top-down approach under Tata Tea management, now it is bottom-up with decisions being taken by committees at various levels. “We adopted this after taking lessons from Tisco where this participatory model was deployed differently. Operations are monitored by committees at various levels,”Alexander says. 

Production up

KDHP's performance has been impressive, ranking first in tea production in the south and fourth at the national level. The company produces 25 million kg of tea a year now, out of which Tata Tea buys about 10 million kg while another four million is exported. The company paid 50 per cent bonus during 2009-10 as against the 14 per cent paid in 2005-06.

The company is also on expansion mode with its eyes set upon managing tea estates abroad. It has struck a deal with a company in Ethiopia to manage their Chewaka estate and grow tea in 5,000 hectares. It has also signed an MoU with a tea company in Vietnam for processing and manufacturing black, green, green and flavoured varieties in the country.

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