On International Tea Day, We Must Think Of Tea Workers on the Verge of a Humanitarian Crisis

John Edoor

On the occasion of the 12th International Tea Day (ITD), the representatives of tea garden workers in India, affirmed the relevance of the ‘December 2005 Declaration on the Rights Read more…of Tea Workers and Small Growers’[1] and urged the governments of the tea producing countries and multi-lateral bodies including FAO and the ILO to take immediate steps to avert a colossal humanitarian crisis facing workers and their families dependent on tea industry.

Ashok Ghosh, General Secretary, United Trades Union Congress (UTUC) and Convenor of ITD-India has called for the setting up of a Wage Board to decide on the wages of plantation workers. He urged that wages of tea garden workers should be determined and fixed as per the norms and principles laid down in 15th ILC and Supreme Court directives, in particular, considering 3 consumption unit for a worker without gender discrimination and with a component of Variable Dearness Allowance to compensate for inflation.
He also asked for housing rights for tea garden workers.

Tea is a perennial universal health drink, the second most consumed liquid after water. The Indian tea industry, the second largest producer of tea in the world, with a production of 1233.14 million kgs during the financial year 2015-16[2], employs more than 1.3 million workers in the regular pay rolls in the big estates, with an equal number as temporary and non-resident workers. More than half of the workers are women. A recent report (2016) by the Labour department of Government of Assam says “The Tea Industry is the single largest Industry in the State of Assam with 800 Registered Tea Gardens all over the State. The Tea Industry is also the biggest employer in the State employing 1,89,421 males and 1,96,191 females permanent and 1,08,360 males and 1,82,863 females temporary workers”.[3]

Contemporary data says that the Indian or global tea production, tea consumption and prices have not experienced a decline. As compared to 2014-15, the total tea production registered an increase of 35.96 million kgs which is 3% more than last year. The tea prices (average) registered an increase of 8.05% and 17.82% compared to the previous year. (TBI 2016) World tea production (Black, Green and Instant) increased by 6 percent to 5.07 million tonnes in 2013 and consumption by nearly 5 percent in 2013 to 4.84 million tonnes. FAO Tea Composite Price, which is an indicative price for black tea, increased significantly from 2006 to 2012. [4]

Nevertheless, tea workers are among the least paid in India and they work and live in deplorable conditions despite constant vigil by the trade unions. The tea industry’s colonial heritage marked by large scale industrial mode of production using immigrant and indentured labour accentuate the vulnerabilities of tea garden workers. In tea gardens, besides wages, housing, sanitation, health, education, drinking water, electricity for the workers are provided by the estate management. The Plantation Labour Act, 1951 made these benefits, on the one hand, the rights of the workers and on the other, the responsibility of the estate management to deliver despite stiff resistances by the plantation management. PLA mandates the employer to take care of drinking water (section 8); conservancy (toilets) (section 9); medical facilities (section 10); canteens (section 11); creches (section 12); recreational facilities (section 13); educational facilities (section 14); housing facilities(section 15); other facilities (amenities) (section 17). However, various reports of the Labour Bureau[5], report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Plantation Labour (2012)[6] have clearly established gross deficiencies in the implementation of various provisions of the Act. To illustrate further, the previously mentioned report of the Labour Department, Assam government has reported,

“• The Tea Garden Management has provided 2,2,7195 number of residential houses to the Tea Garden workers of the registered Tea Gardens in Assam. There is a shortfall of 42,453 houses, which is a violation under section 15 of the Plantation Labour Act, 1951.

• The Tea Garden Management has provided 1,89,338 number of latrines and 79,009 number of water points for the Tea Gardens workers of Assam and there is a shortfall of 80,321 number of latrines and 6,521 number of water points which is a violation under section 9 and section 8 respectively of the Plantation Labour Act, 1951.

• There are total 434 number of Hospitals 391 Doctors, 751 Pharmacist in the registered Tea Gardens of Assam. There is a shortfall of 63 Hospitals, 126 Doctors, 379 Pharmacist which is a violation under section 10 of the Plantation Labour Act, 1951.

• There are total 1218 number of Crèche houses in the registered Tea Gardens of Assam. Total 61 Tea Gardens have not provided Crèche houses which is a violation under section 12 of the Plantation Labour Act, 1951.”

For about two to three decades, global tea industry has been experiencing corporate led, brand centric restructuring with significant shifts in systems of production, sourcing and marketing. In India, while major tea brands like Tatas have either hived off their agricultural activities to new entities like Kannan Deven Hills Plantations Co. Pvt. Ltd. and Amalgamated Plantations Pvt. Ltd., or are engaged in serious cost cutting measures, the middle level and low level plantations have been closing down or experiencing abandonment. The instances of closure and abandonment have been highest among those which were mismanaged – financially and in agricultural practices. In West Bengal 22 tea gardens are closed down throwing thousands of workers into unemployment, destitution, starvation. Various newspapers reported more than 100 deaths in 2015-16.

Global standard setters like Rainforest Alliance or Ethical Trading Partnership have failed to establish accountability of tea majors with regard to observance of labour rights and health and safety of workers in their gardens. In a strong indictment to the Tata Global Beverages, the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), which holds the World Bank Group accountable to its own policies, in a report released on November 7, 2016, has found that low wages and poor working conditions on Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL) plantations do not “‘protect and promote’ the health of workers, and thus [do not] provide a way out of poverty.”[7] In 2009, The World Bank Group’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), joined forces with Tata Global Beverages, invested US$7.8 million for a 19.9% stake in APPL. The project, in which Tata retained a 49.6% stake, aimed to preserve over 30,000 jobs and to implement an employee-share-ownership program, offering workers the opportunity to make decisions in the company and share in its profits.

Tea garden workers’ persistent poverty has a direct link to the extremely low wages they receive and to the denial of right to housing. The principles of need based minimum wages as defined by the 15th Indian Labour Conference and the Supreme Court Judgement in Raptakos case are not implemented in the tea gardens. Though the tea garden workers are skilled industrial workers with years of experience, their wages in Assam and West Bengal are lower than what is set for the unskilled agricultural workers by the respective state governments. The wages of the tea garden workers are calculated considering 1.5 consumption unit for a worker instead of 3 consumption unit as has been legally acknowledged in India under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. There is no uniformity in fixing wages for tea workers across tea producing regions in India. The wages of tea plantation workers are not linked to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) except in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. There is no provision for DA or VDA though, this has been a long standing demand of the trade unions including Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) in Assam and Co-ordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers (CCTPW) in West Bengal.

Tea worker families, though residing within the tea gardens for three to four generations, do not have right over the homestead or the house. They are within the gardens only because the planters follow a policy of providing employment to the descendants of those who retire or die. Houses are dilapidated and haphazardly extended to accommodate generations of children and siblings. People without right to housing are virtually captive and dependent workforce.

Moreover, Tea Board of India says about 36 per cent of tea produced in India is by small tea growers. Workers engaged by the small tea growers do not fall within the purview of the PLA and therefore, do not enjoy any of the benefits and are not unionised. In Assam, though in 2013 minimum wages were fixed at Rs.140 for workers engaged in small tea gardens not covered by Plantation Labour Act 1951 and in West Bengal, an agreement on wages is reached between a section of big small growers and trade unions, neither wages nor other rights at work rarely implemented.

[1] On December 15, 2005 tea workers and small growers from 11 tea producing countries from Africa, South Asia and East Asia observed the first International Tea Day in New Delhi, India and called for the constitution of an International Tea Commission to promote and strengthen the tea industry, which will have specific provisions to protect the interests of tea workers and small growers.

[2] Tea Board of India. (2016). India records highest ever tea production during the financial year 2015-16; exports breach 230 million kgs mark after 35 years (Press Release). Kolkata: Tea Board of India.

[3] Labour Department, Government of Assam. (2016). Tea Gardens of Assam: A Report on Plantation Labour Act, 1951 under 100 Days Action Plan. Guwahati: Government of Assam.

[4] Kaison Chang, Margarita Brattlof. (2015). Contribution of tea production and exports to food security, rural development and smallholder welfare in selected producing countries (FAO Intergovernmental Group on Tea) Rome: Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations.

[5] ‘Report on the Working of the Plantations Labour Act, 1951’ for various years

[6] Parliament of India, Rajya Sabha. (2012). Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Commerce 102nd Report on Performance of Plantation Sector – Tea and Coffee Industry (Presented to the Rajya Sabha on 9th August, 2012; Laid on the Table of Lok Sabha on 9th August, 2012). New Delhi: Rajya Sabha Secretariat, Government of India.

[7] CAO Compliance. (2016). CAO Investigation of IFC Environmental and Social Performance in relation to: Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL), India (CAO Investigation of IFC. CAO Ref: C-I-R6-Y11-F133). Washington DC: Office of the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) for the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), Members of the World Bank Group.

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