By Sushovan Dhar
India’s tea sector is driven in large part by Assam and West Bengal, which account for over 70 percent of the country’s tea production. There are at least one million tea workers employed on more than 1000 tea gardens in these two eastern states. The 150-year-old tea industry is one of the region’s economic pillars, and contributes to the livelihoods of up to seven million people.
West Bengal, the largest tea growing state in India after Assam, is known for producing Darjeeling tea. More than 21 percent of India’s total tea production comes from here. In the north of the state in areas such as Darjeeling, Terai and Dooars, there are around 270 gardens employing upwards of 260,000 workers. Major companies such as Tata Tea, Williamson Magor Group, Goodricke Group and Duncans Group are heavily involved in the state’s tea industry, and the Williamson Magor Group is investing USD 20 million in order to expand its market presence.
The rolling tea estates of north Bengal hide the realities of malnutrition and starvation-related deaths. More than 100 people have reportedly died in five closed tea gardens since January 2014. However, the current Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in the state, like its predecessor the Left Front government, refuses to acknowledge that these deaths are related to difficult working conditions. Unofficial estimates put the death toll of workers and their families in Dooars and Terai at more than 1000 since 2002.
The tea industry – one of the most profitable industries in the country – has enriched plantation owners while tea-garden workers have remained impoverished. They currently receive a daily wage of INR 122 (USD 2) per day. In comparison, the wage rate for workers in West Bengal under the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme is INR 174 (USD 3), and the minimum wage set by the state government for agricultural labourers is INR 206 (pending revision). It is a particularly unfortunate situation considering that the pay received by plantation workers, who are assumed to be part of the organised sector, is even lower than the wages in the unorganised sector.
The lack of a fair wage standard in the tea industry that keeps pace with changes in day-to-day economic realities means that tea workers are paid the lowest wages in comparison to any other workers in the organised sector. Employers have neglected to develop a fair structure of wages mandated by the last Central Wage Board for Tea Plantation Industry in 1966. Their real wages – which are not linked to the rising Consumer Price Index – have stagnated over the last 50 years, leading to growing distress, migration and unrest.
The Plantation Labour Act 1951 (PLA) was created to establish certain social and economic rights for workers in various plantation sectors. The Act attempted to address the rights of workers, many of whom are descendants of millions of indentured workers forcibly uprooted from their native lands and brought to plantation areas. Under the Act, the responsibility of ensuring decent working and living conditions falls on plantation owners. However, a detailed survey conducted by West Bengal’s labour department of the state’s tea gardens tells a different story, revealing evidence of mismanagement and abominable labour practices. The major findings of the survey include the following: six tea estates have not provided any housing for their workers; 51 tea estates have not provided housing to half or more of their workers; 44 tea estates do not have any latrine; and workers in 12 Dooars region tea estates live without any electricity.
Furthermore, tea workers face problems with drinking water supply, both in terms of quality and quantity. Access to healthcare is also a major concern: out of 273 tea estates only 166 have hospitals, and of these, only 56 have full-time residential doctors and 116 do not have a nurse on site. Workers in 113 tea estates experience even worse healthcare access as these estates do not have a primary health centre.
The above-mentioned statistics and other findings of the report clearly indicate that tea-garden owners run their operations as they see fit, violating all rules and the basic provisions of the PLA. Basic provisions of housing and upkeep, toilets, crèches, drinking water, medical facilities and electricity that are mentioned in the PLA have fallen by the wayside.
A number of tea gardens in the region regularly fail to deposit the amount deducted from workers for their provident funds. According to the report, 41 tea estates did not deposit any amount for contributions to provident funds in 2012-13. In 46 tea estates, the total due to provident funds from workers’ contribution was INR 17.1 crore, while in 55 tea estates, the total due to provident funds on the part of management contributions was INR 33.7 crore. Further, 22 tea estates did not pay gratuity to any workers from 2009-10 to 2012-13. While workers toil away, management and owners have benefited from an atmosphere of silence and inaction on the part of the government.
At a time when domestic demand for tea is soaring and retail brands are selling tea products at high prices, workers are being paid a pittance and find themselves in a spiral of destitution. The prized gardens of the Darjeeling hills are exporting orthodox tea and also different varieties of organic tea that sell at premium prices. Collusion between tea companies and the government has led to suppression of wages in the industry. According to media reports, workers’ families and trade unions, such dismal wages have contributed to the wholesale migration of workers, particularly men, out of the gardens, resulting in severe absenteeism ranging from 25 to 40 percent of the workforce.
Wages have stagnated while living costs have increased sharply. Workers’ savings are almost non-existent, increasing their insecurity and vulnerability, and many are forced to take on extra work to supplement their wages. With a large portion of their earnings going to procure bare necessities, workers find that they have little money left for expenditures such as clothing, healthcare and school fees. Additionally, the rise in food prices over the past decade has forced a reduction in the amount of food consumed because workers simply cannot afford to buy what they need. As a result, there is widespread malnutrition, and medical studies have found that a majority of the children living in tea estates are underweight.
The tea workers face the additional threat of owners closing or abandoning tea estates. Tea gardens are large and often geographically isolated, making their workers completely dependent upon them for their livelihoods. When owners abandon estates, workers are left to starve. The threat of closing down a garden is conveniently used by the owners to neutralise demands by workers for their legitimate dues.
A recent report by the Right to Food and Work Campaign-West Bengal states:
The procession of death remains unabated in the closed tea gardens. We had reported yesterday of 3 persons we had met in Bandapani Tea Gardens who were near death. Unfortunately, the first news we have got this morning is of the death of Mukesh Goala, one of these three persons. It has induced in all of us a feeling of great helplessness and anger at the injustice of life in the tea estates, where on the one hand owners make huge profits, paying a measly wage of Rs. 95 to workers, abandoning gardens with impunity and on the other hand young men like Mukesh Goala die untimely deaths due to hunger and poverty. The death remains unregistered in any official record and unmarked, part of many such unknown tragedies that take place here every day.
The team visited several closed tea gardens and identified three people who were close to death. They also made it clear to the Minister of Food and Civil Supplies in West Bengal that these “are only the people we were able to meet during our brief visit. There are many such other people and a complete survey by the Government would help to identify other such people.” However, the government remained a mute spectator.