A Kerala women’s project to recycle plastic could shut down thanks to a selfish trade union

The project has no need for union workers, but is forced to hire them, and invite harassment onto its women employees in the process.
A Kerala women’s project to recycle plastic could shut down thanks to a selfish trade union
A Kerala women’s project to recycle plastic could shut down thanks to a selfish trade union
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It’s the kind of project that NGOs and governments dream of – a project that collects waste for recycling and conserves resources, and provides a livelihood to women in need in the process. But thanks to local trade union demands, this project could soon be forced to shut down.

Initiated by Plan@Earth, the project collects plastic waste from around 16,000 households in Aluva, Perumbavoor and Paravoor. It also employs around 70 women, who earn their living through this cooperative system, which was started on 2009. Most of these women were the sole earners of their families, or from extremely poor backgrounds.

“When we began, our priority was environmental protection and conservation of resources, and the second aim was women’s empowerment. Our initiative was a boon for households too, as municipalities and panchayats found it difficult to collect plastic waste frequently,” says Sooraj Abraham, one of the founders of Plan@Earth and a guest lecturer at the Aluva Union Christian College.

When the project first began, the waste was packaged within the respective areas from where it was collected. The problem began in 2014, when a godown was hired in Aluva for segregating and packing the waste. The godown served as a node, with the packed plastic waste being sent to different factories for recycling. The women involved in the project would carry out all the loading and unloading work themselves, with the assistance of some migrant labourers in the area.

However, local trade union members did not allow this arrangement to continue for very long, insisting that they must be allowed to carry out the loading and unloading work.

“These women did their work so passionately and neatly. But for the last many months, we have been continuously tortured by a few trade union workers affiliated with SDPI. They created an issue claiming that it is their work to load and unload the waste we collect. Since we didn’t want to create an issue we accepted, and they were doing the work. But the torture was unbearable,” Sooraj alleged.

But if the members of Plan@Earth thought accommodating union demands would settle their problems, they were soon proved wrong. “They pass lousy comments at us, threaten us when we are going home, sing songs with double meanings when we pass by, and also take off their clothes in front of us. Even worse, they carelessly throw the bundles, so that all the segregated waste gets mixed up again,” says a woman worker.

Moreover, the workers create issues every other day seeking higher wages. “We don’t run this (project) for profit, these poor women are paying the workers out of their small earnings, out of fear. How can we pay them more,” asks Mujeeb Mohammed one of the founders.

When the problems increased to the extent that the project team could not function, they approached the High Court, which allowed them police protection. Personnel in the Aluva police station then held a compromise meeting, in which the trade union men agreed not to disturb the women again.

However, alleges Sooraj, there was no letup in the harassment. And meanwhile, the advocate for the union men filed an appeal at the HC, asking that the case should be adjudicated by the Labour Officer.  “The Labour Officer said that we should continue to hire the trade union men because we had already been doing it,” Sooraj said.

“But we hired them out of fear, because they threatened these women. We don’t need their help, we can manage the work ourselves. So, why should we hire them?”

With no solution to the harassment, Sooraj says that Plan@Earth has no choice but to shut down the initiative.

This would mean a great loss not just for the dozens of women directly employed in the project. It would also serve a big blow to the municipalities and panchayats of Aluva, Paravur, Perumbavoor and so on, which do not have a proper plastic waste recycling system, and are dependent on this project for getting rid of their plastic waste. 

Edited by Rakesh Mehar

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