The exploitation of labour in India’s tea industry goes back centuries but the news that almost 100 tea workers in the Dooars region of West Bengal have died over the last 12 months brings the feudal conditions under which these workers are forced to toil into sharp focus.
India is the second-largest tea producing country in the world after China, and the tea industry is India’s second biggest employer after the railways.
There are various tea growing areas in country but both the wages and working conditions in West Bengal’s 300 tea estates are amongst the worst – a situation exacerbated by the recent closure of six tea gardens which made close to 10,000 workers jobless.
Some 200,000 people work in tea plantations in West Bengal, earning poverty wages of about 95 rupees (US$1.50) a day.
By law, employers must supplement these incredibly low wages with housing, food, education and medical benefits but when the plantations close, these things are no longer available.
Former workers often migrate to find work elsewhere, frequently becoming victims of forced labour or labour trafficking.
Or they stay, doing what they can to survive – which is why some former workers are dying of starvation and disease.
Take the Dekhlapara Tea Estate in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, for example.
Established in 1921, it has been closed on two occasions over last 12 years following worker demands for better living and working conditions.
It closed permanently back in 2006, rendering 603 of its permanent workforce jobless.
The company also owes around US$260,000 in back pay and pensions.
From the abandoned tea estate, many “ghost workers”continue to pluck green tea leaves surrounded by crumbling structures, before selling the tea to agents. For this, they earn 35 rupees (US$0.57) a day.
Others collect and sell sand or stones from the nearby riverbanks or collect firewood from the nearby forests, for which they earn about 40 rupees (US$0.65) a day.
But many simply haven’t been able to find a way to survive.
Between 2013 and 2014, sevenpeople diedfrom starvation, malnutrition and other poverty-induced illness at Dekhlapara.
This July, a 12-member team from the Right to Food Campaign along with various NGOs and trade unions, went on a fact-finding mission to five West Bengal tea gardens—Bandapani, Dheklapara, Redbank, Surendranagar, and Dharanipur.
The findings were conclusive – and shocking.
“Not all these deaths were due to starvation, but they were all due to causes associated with closure—hunger, malnutrition and diseases—and the inability to avail of medical treatment due to poverty,” says Franklyn D’Souza of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), who wason the mission.
While on their four-day visit, the group encountered 12 severely malnourished tea pickers in need of medical assistance. One of them, 23-year-old Mukesh Goala of the Bandapani tea garden, died.
Poor regulation and management
If 30 per cent of the world’s tea comes from India and West Bengal is one of the country’s most important tea growing regions, why have so many big tea estates, which produce about 65 per cent of tea in India, closed down?
“The main reason for the closure of tea plantations in West Bengal is due to bad management,” says Ashok Ghosh, General Secretary of United Trade Union Congress, which organises tea workers throughout the region and has been very active in the negotiations for tea industry wages.
“Unlike the situation in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, in West Bengal and Assam, big estates are government land taken on lease. Every management is ambitious about exploiting the land and makingprofit, for which they suppress the workers’ rights and subjugate them as slaves,” he says.
The majority of the big estates are owned by individuals who run them as personal fiefdoms. If selling tea is no longer profitable, they simply switch to real estate.
As one estate manager explained: “Unlike some cereals, tea does not have a floor price. There is no assurance of a constant price.”
J. John, a labour rights expert and a member of the government-initiated Working Group on Policy Framework for Plantation Labour, acknowledges the apparent contradiction of the industry.
“On one hand we have an increase in tea production in India but on the other hand there have been a growing number of closures of big tea plantations,” he says.
“Small tea growers [small farmers with plots ranging from two to 20 hectares] contribute to more than 30 per cent of the tea produced in India today. In this sense, the production of tea by small farmers has contributed to the decline of tea plantations.”
However, John admits there is more to it than that.
“The underlying factor is the industry-wide separation of agricultural activities, that produce raw tea leaves, from the commercial application of processed tea, because the value accrued is disproportionately high at the latter stage,” John adds.
“Among other things, profit margins at the commercial stage are protected by keeping the prices of green tea low on the one hand, and decreasing the compensation to workers on the other. Therefore, small farmers and workers are in constant threat of deprivation.”
And under both models, wages remain rock-bottom.
“Extreme impoverishment is endemic in tea estates, closed or otherwise,” says John.
Even worse for women
Tea workers all over the country tend to live in one-room tenements provided by the employer, although accommodation isn’t always provided. The conditions are generally speaking, “pathetic” as Ranajit Guha, General Secretary of All India Trade Union Congress, West Bengal puts it.
“The squalor and the ramshackle houses are enough to reveal how the workers are being treated by the management,” he adds.
In Kerala, things aren’t much different. Pointing to the dilapidated walls of her one-room shack provided for by MMJ Plantations in Vagamon, in Kerala’s Idukki district, Pazhaniamma tells Equal Times: “A pig sty is better than this place. Six of us stay here. No repair work has been done ever, and we are sure in the next monsoon, it will collapse.”
There are no sanitation facilities, which is particularly difficult – and dangerous – for women.
“We use the open space for our daily needs, so we have to go either early morning or wait for darkness,” says Murugatha, a tea worker from the same estate.
In fact, female tea pickers, who constitute around 53 per cent of the workforce, face a number of challenges.
‘Roll No. 2065’ is how one tea picker is referred to on her work documents for MMJ Plantations. But at home, this mother-of-three is simply known as Rugmini.
She started working for the plantation at the age of nine. For 19 years she was a casual labourer.
Now, as a permanent employee, the 49-year-old widow earns a daily wage of 216 rupees (US$ 3.5) which is more than twice the average wage in West Bengal.
Still, Rugmini’s life is very hard.
She has to report to work at 7.50 a.m but her eight hour work day begins many hours before that with a number of household chores ranging from fetching water to cooking and cleaning.
Persistent fever, cough, backache and arthritis are common among workers.
Functioning estates usually have some sort of medical facilities but once they close down, former workers have to look for private healthcare.
“We do not have food to eat, and how can we think of going to a private hospital?” asks one tea worker.
In terms of solutions, the Indian government recently launched emergency food and medical aid for affected tea workers.
In addition, negotiations for a new sectoral minimum wage will begin in November (the existing agreement expired in March).
The tea trade unions in India are calling for an increased wage but it is worth remembering that most estate owners are not even meeting the minimum wage.
While attending a tea industry stakeholders meeting in Assam earlier this month, Nirmala Sitaraman, the State Minister for Commerce and Industry, has to ask remind estate owners that they are legal obliged to pay the minimum wage to the tea workers – and that the financial worth of workers benefits should not be taken into account.
But either way, it will take more than recommendations and promises to ensure real change for these vulnerable workers.
“There are about 31,000-odd workers on about 40 estates in West Bengal that have jobs but are struggling without proper wages, medical facilities, pathetic housing or drinking water,” says Chitta Dey, convener of the Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers, a conglomeration of 23 different tea worker unions.
“The united voice of the workers through massive protests – this is the only option left,” he says.