‘Fair Value, Fair Wage’: Deputation, press meet and tea plantation workers’ dialogue held in Siliguri, India to demand fairness in the tea value chain
26 – 27 April 2022
India is the second-largest producer of tea in the world. Production in India shows growth with an output of 1.33 million tonnes in 2018, up by 37% since 2009. The tea industry is also India‘s second-largest employer and employs over 3.5 million people across 1,686 tea estates and 157,504 smallholdings. Women form a major workforce in the tea plantations. However, employment in the plantation sector continues to be influenced by the colonial practices that started in the nineteenth century when British companies forced low caste (Dalits or untouchable caste), poverty-stricken, landless and tribal (Adivasi or Indigenous) populations from central and southern India to work on the plantations. Assam and West Bengal are the two largest tea producing estates in India and the minimum wages there are respectively INR 205 and INR 202. In both the states, the wages is minimum than what is provided by the country’s unemployment benefits programme – the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Collusion between tea companies and the government has led to the suppression of wages in the industry. On the contrary, the market, especially the export market, is lucrative as is observed in the case of the prized gardens of the Darjeeling hills exporting orthodox tea and also different varieties of organic tea at premium prices. Meanwhile, though women form over 50 per cent of the labour force in tea plantations, the industry maintains an oppressive gender hierarchy. Women are rarely seen in supervisory positions of staff or sub-staff, and their presence is overwhelming at the lowest paid level of work. There are many instances of provident fund and gratuity amounts provided late or not provided at all when workers leave the tea estates. Social protection, housing, health and sanitation facilities are also not adequately provided to workers in the sector.
In this context, South Asia Alliance for Poverty Eradication (SAAPE) and Progressive Plantation Workers’ Union (PPWU) jointly organised a two-day event titled ‘Fair Value, Fair Wage’ comprising of workers’ dialogue, deputation and press meeting in Siliguri, India to demand fairness in the tea value chain and raise the concerns of tea plantation sectors’ workers. The two-day event (26 April 2022 – 27 April 2022) was participated by tea sector workers from West Bengal and Assam and union leaders from Uttar Bangla ChayeSangathan, Uttar Bangla BikaasParishad, All Student Adivasi Union of AssamandDooarsTeraiAadivasi Women Welfare Society, among other organisations. UmeshUpadhyaya [the former Secretary-General at General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT)], Netra Prasad Timsina (the Regional Coordinator at SAAPE), Praman Adhikari (the Programme Coordinator at SAAPE), and Sudhir Shrestha (the MEAL Officer at SAAPE) attended the event from Nepal.
The first half of the first-day event was the workers’ dialogue, a public interaction programme to highlight the issues of minimum wage and decent living conditions of tea sector workers in West Bengal and Assam. The event was moderated by Kiran Kumar Kalindi from PPWU. Netra Timsina, the Regional Coordinator of SAAPE, welcomed the participants and provided a brief introduction of SAAPE and then explained the rationale of the event.
Stephen Lakra, a representative from the All Student Adivasi Union of Assam, shared that one million people are dependent on the tea sector in Assam and around seven to eight million people in Assam are associated with the tea industry. He added that the biggest issue for Assamese workers in the tea sector is wage followed by land rights, education and health. According to Stephen, the requirements for a dignified life, including health and education, come from the market and hence, a reasonable living wage is required to meet those requirements. Similarly, Lakhiram Tanti from Dibrugarh (Assam) further elaborated on the concerns of Assamese tea workers.BinitaKujjr from DooarsTeraiAadivasi Women Welfare Society shared the concerns of women workers in tea estates. She stated that the proportion of women workforce in the tea sector is increasing but there are no proper maternity care facilities and childcare facilities in tea estates. Subhash Thapa, a worker at Sylee Tea Estate in Nagrakata, stated that the minimum wage of INR 202 is too low to provide education and health facilities to family members. He also raised the issue of keeping workers in the field and not letting them get promoted to handle clerical work in the tea estates. SashiSunuwar, the President of Uttar Bangla ChiyaShramikSangathan, raised the issue of non-implementation of the provisions of the Gratuity Act 1972, Bonus Act 1965, Maternity Act 1961 and Plantation Labour Act 1957. He further said that workers are not provided with land rights even after more than three generations of works work in the same tea estate. Sushovan Dhar, the Vice-President of PPWU, summarised the workers’ dialogue event and called the current minimum wage a ‘starvation wage’ as it cannot even meet the minimum basic calorie requirement with the inflationary pressure.
The workers’ dialogue was followed by a discussion on the draft petition to be submitted to the Additional Labour Commissioner of the Government of West Bengal, India. Debjit Dutta, a trade unionist from Kolkata, readout, among the participants of the event, the final contents of the petition. The petition urged the Government of West Bengal to immediately declare and implement a minimum wage (since the current minimum wage is still an interim one) without further moves to mentally intimidate workers through never-ending bargaining process, ensure homestead rights for tea plantation workers and provide social security for tea workers (see the end of the event note for the copy of the petition). The petition was submitted, through a deputation of workers, to the Additional Labour Commissioner of the Government of West Bengal on the evening of the same day (26 April 2022).
The second day of the programme on 27 April 2022started with an interaction programme with the participants discussing the issues and strategies for the ‘fair value, fair wage’ campaign. The participants from West Bengal and Assam echoed a common concern that unions are in collusion with industrialists for keeping the wages low. They shared that although workers are ready and united to demand their rights, they do not get proper leadership since unions are themselves divided and are tacitly conspiring against the workers’ issues by colluding with industrialists.
ProfessorUmeshUpadhyaya, the Former Secretary-General of GEFONT, shared his long experience as a trade unionist in Nepal in form of a keynote speech. He stated that the state is capitalist-friendly and not worker-friendly. However, the three major unions are united for workers’ rights in Nepal contrary to the condition in India, he shared. He further said that only after workers struggle, a tripartite committee, comprising of the representatives from the Tea Producers’ Association, workers’ unions and the government, is formed in Nepal in which the government stays neutral as a mere spectator. He highlighted the rising informalisation of the sector with the rise in seasonal workers and smallholders (tea peasants) which is difficult to stop but their living condition has to be improved by ensuring social security benefits.
The keynote speech by ProfessorUpadhyaya was followed by a short sharing of the findings of country research on the tea value chain of Nepal by Sudhir Shrestha. Shrestha raised the issue of the feudal nature of the industrialists in Nepal as they have a business model to make a profit by suppressing wages and dillydallying the payment of social security benefits to workers rather than finding a better-valued market for their end products. He further raised the issue of the non-transparent value chain which has put workers in the dark regarding the basis on which they could bargain with the producer association. He urged the unions to be innovating and include temporary/seasonal workers in unions to increase the strength and bargaining power of unions.
In the end, Sushovan Dhar raised the need to regionalise the issue of the fair tea value chain in South Asia. He stated that a common floor wage needs to be set in South Asia. He further proposed that the International Tea Day on May 21 be celebrated by raising the legitimate concerns of workers.
A press event was organised in the second half of the second-day event. Journalists from various regional print media and televisions in West Bengal were invited to take up the issues of the concerns of the tea sector workers among the general public. The representatives from SAAPE, PPWU, All Student Adivasi Union of Assam and DooarsTeraiAadivasi Women Welfare Society shared with the press the issues of minimum wage, land rights and social security of tea workers in the region.
 Here is the link to one of the media footages: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?extid=WA-UNK-UNK-UNK-AN_GK0T-GK1C&v=1016189645670573