Breaking the system designed to keep tea workers poor


Tea pickers in Wayanad, India. Steenbergs under a Creative Commons Licence

Sabita Banerji reports on the challenge of securing labour rights for plantation workers in India.

Last September, the BBC revealed appalling conditions on Assamese tea plantations (which supply, among others, London’s Fortnum and Mason) – overflowing cesspits, leaking roofs, child labour, pesticide poisoning and severely malnourished children.

But this was not exactly news.

There have been numerous similar reports over the past decades. In 2014, the Guardian reported on ‘Assam’s modern slaves’, claiming poverty wages were the cause of plantation workers’ children being trafficked into sexual or domestic slavery.

A report entitled ‘The more things change… Enduring abuses on India’s tea plantations’ found that, despite being part of a World Bank-funded scheme to move Assamese plantations partly into worker ownership, they failed to meet the standards of the World Bank, of certification bodies or of Indian law.

One of the root causes, it concluded, was that the ‘compensation scheme originally developed for the colonial plantations and their migrant workers – low cash wages, supplemented with housing and social benefits – has remained unchanged. As in the colonial period, the plantations function as a parallel governance structure, with little active involvement by the state, whether in setting wages or in monitoring working and living conditions.’

Certification bodies introduced hope that change was possible, but a 2013 report by Oxfam and the Ethical Tea Partnership, found that workers on fair trade-certified plantations received no higher wages than on non-certified ones; although it provides other benefits, fair-trade certification only requires payment of the legal minimum wage. The minimum wages for tea workers in Assam are ‘just above the World Bank poverty line…’ and only 40 per cent of the Indian average.

Where benefits are provided at all, they are often of appalling quality. Though trade unions have in the past won important benefits for workers, including equal pay for women, they seem to struggle to win better outcomes for workers in the tripartite negotiations ostensibly between government, employers and workers’ representatives. Protesting plantation workers in Munnar, Kerala, alleged that their trade unions had been bought out by management and were closely allied to political parties and therefore did not represent them at all.

Because local populations were unwilling to take up the back-breaking, low-paid work being offered in the new tea plantations of the 19th century, today’s workers are mostly descendants of impoverished, tribal or low-caste people from other areas. In Kerala and Sri Lanka, they were Tamil indentured or bonded labourers. Sri Lankan companies considered shipping in African slaves but were deterred by transport costs. Chinese labour was discounted as being too ‘demanding’.

West Bengal plantations relied on forced labour from Nepal, where slavery was common. In Assam, conditions were even closer to slavery. ‘The picture was not a pretty one,’ says Alan Macfarlane in Green Gold. ‘Men and women, newly arrived in a strange country after an appalling journey, crowded on a boat without sanitation from which dead bodies were heaved overboard at the rate of 20 a week, now driven like cattle towards a miserable journey’s end.’

Thus these huge, remote plantations were staffed by a captive labour force kept powerless by poverty, illiteracy, debt and isolation. The lucky ones had benign, patriarchal managers. The less fortunate were driven hard, prevented with violence from leaving, paid a pittance and given the barest minimum of benefits.

Most plantation workers have lost contact with their homelands and language, yet have not been integrated into the culture of their new home. They’re often subject to disenfranchisement, violence and discrimination by the local population. They know no other skills than those associated with tea cultivation and have few employment alternatives. So when plantations go bankrupt – as has happened frequently recently in West Bengal – they often stay put, even if it means starvation.

In Kerala, the result of a growing tourism market, offering better paid jobs, is a shrinking labour supply at a time when global tea demand and prices are falling or stagnant. In September last year, falling profits led to the annual bonus being halved, triggering a strike by thousands of women that lasted almost a month, stifling the tourism trade and spreading to other plantations – including coffee and rubber – across Kerala. The women – who called themselves Pembilla Orumai (Unity of Women) – were also protesting against low wages, poor living conditions and unhealthy working conditions.

The government has been forced to open its eyes; Kerala’s Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy, observed that ‘successive governments failed to catch the lapses of the management [in observing laws on the humane treatment of workers]’.

So can this group of women workers do what international financial institutions, NGOs, trade unions, company corporate social responsibility programmes, certification bodies and governments have so far failed to do? To break the system that keeps tea plantation workers poor, freeing them to enjoy the same rights as other agricultural workers?

As author and anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’

Let’s hope that she will be proved right in this case, and that another century won’t pass with the same atrocities being sustained.

Sabita Banerji is an economic justice campaigner based in London, but originally from India. After many years of working in international development and fair trade volunteering, she now works for the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). The views in this blog are her personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of ETI.