Thursday, November 3, 2016

First Plantation Labour Protest in Malaya Staged by the Telugus in 1912

As we look into the records of first Indian plantation labour strikes in Malaya, we shall come across an incident which took place in December 1912, where 1500 Telugu labourers of the Rantau Panjang – Sungai Tinggi Estate stopped work and marched toward Klang.

Rubber Plantation Labourers - 1913 (source
Most Telugus were Vaishanavites as depicted clearly of their "Thiruman" marks on their foreheads. Many temples for deity Lord Rama and Telugu schools in Malaya were established by Telugu plantation labourers.
The main causes of the desertion were due non-payment of wages for six months and harsh treatment of the labourers. The Singapore Free Press dated 19 December 1912 reported that 400 Telugu workers were absconded from their estates – Rantau Panjang and Siginting (Segenting). They were reported refused to return to their estates and subsequently 250 of them had been detailed.

The Singapore Free Press -  19 December 1912
The management of the estates felt that there have been instigation agents among the workers. The managers convinced the Assistant Commissioner of Labour for Klang that these Telugu labourers were source of the trouble. The Telugus were judged “an exceptionally bad class of labourers.” The Assistant Commissioner felt that there were a few ring leaders responsible for the unrest and advised the District Officers to take appropriate action against them. The District Officer in turn ordered the ring leaders to be arrested and detain the labourers. Over a hundred labourers detained and charged for breaching their contracts under section 229/30 of the Labour Code.

However, the Deputy Controller of Labour was not pleased with this action because the alleged offences were committed before the Labour Code 1912 came into force! He sorted the Resident of Selangor to intervene to release the labourers. But the Resident refused. Later, when the labourers about to be released, the Assistant Commissioner of Labour for Klang approached the labourers to return to their former estates, the labourer refused. They told the Assistant Commissioner that they would prefer to stay in the jail or “even walk into the sea and be drowned.” One could imagine the harsh treatment that they have gone through living in those estates!

This incident impacted and forced the British to review their decision to deploy Telugus labourers in plantation in Malaya. Understanding the Telugus were confrontational in nature, the British decided to opt for Tamil labourers which considered to be more obedient and docile. Thus, we see the historical changes in the demography of South Indian labourers in Malaya.     

Like the Chinese labourers, the Indian labourers were confrontational in the 1930s and onward. Factors like severe effects of depression on the Indian labour force, domiciled nature and restrictions on movement between estates had contributed Indian workers to develop more confrontation type of collective resistance.

(Information provided in the article was taken from Prof.P. Ramasamy's work - Labour Control and Resistance in Colonial Malaya published in Plantations, Proletarians, and Peasants in Colonial Asia edited by E. Valentine Daniel, Henry Bernstein, Tom Brass - Frank Cass and Co., 1992)

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