Fellow Since 2009
Ceylon Plantation Workers’ Union (CPWU)
This profile was prepared when Menaha Kandasamy was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.
The New Idea
In her effort to empower the most marginalized community of Sri Lanka, Menaha has targeted women tea pluckers who have historically formed the backbone of the Sri Lankan economy. The structural change in unions brought by Menaha as the president of CPWU starts from the bottom where through her literacy program and leadership skills training she influences women to be active trade unionists and more assertive of their labor rights. At the top level she has worked on creating an affirmative space that ensures women s equal representation at different strata of the unions. From the estate committee to the district committee, positions are equally allocated for women. According to the regulations established through Menahas leadership, if an estate committee elects a man as its president then only women can contest for the secretary position. By getting this established she has ensured a 50 percent representation of women workers in every estate union committee. These two top members (the president and the secretary) of estate committees represent their estate to the district union committee and the representations are made to the central committee. Menahas mechanism to bring an equal number of women worker representatives from estate committees to the district committees has led 37 such trained women leaders to be part of the central committee which never had women participants before. This representation has not only increased women s bargaining power within the trade union structure, but also with the plantation companies and different government bodies for policy changes. Menaha has trained women trade unionists on labor law and empowered them to take cases to labor courts and plantation companies for negotiation. Four landmark cases have been won by these women in the labor courts which have benefited not only women but the plantation working men too. She has also created a platform for womens active participation in negotiating and revising the collective agreement signed between trade unions and estate owners every three years. This negotiation process, which deals with workers salary anomalies and grievances, used to be an exclusive space for plantation working men. Menaha has made sure that women workers play a vital role in these talks and for over a decade she has been the main driving force behind major plantation labor union negotiations with Employers Federation, labor courts, politicians, and plantation companies. She has used her positive leadership image to argue for and garner equal representation of women workers in other non-plantation trade unions. Currently, garment factory workers, who are also mostly women (72 percent), are joining the trade unions even though they are barred from joining or forming unions by their foreign factory owners. Menaha, with her trade union colleagues, is involved in organizing local domestic workers to form a union to articulate the drafting and passing of a domestic worker act which will alleviate enormous difficulties faced by domestic workers. She is also spearheading a movement that campaigns for a postal voting mechanism (absentee ballots) for migrant workers most of whom work abroad on a contract basis as domestic aide. Out of about 1 million Sri Lankans who work abroad, 600,000 of them are women and about 93 percent of them are employed in the Middle East. Menaha is certain that if these women have a way of voting their voices and concerns can be heard by the policymakers and politicians. She believes that these women can collectively, through their voting power, send their own representative to the Parliament.