With so many thrilling incidents, premeditated or otherwise—depending on whom you ask—happening every other day, it is little wonder the recent news on the BBC exposé on Assam’s famed tea gardens and the Munnar agitation has passed by most Indians. Social media was quite muted and press coverage has been obligatory at best. Keeping track of the multiple bans and their aftermath can—and does—take a lot of our time. However, these two separate but indirectly related events merit a closer look, if only because it showcases the India that we would rather ignore.
How grim is my valley
Since Assam supplies the morning cuppa for most Brits, it is only fitting that the BBC reconfirms what most of us already know – the inhumane condition in which tea-garden workers have to live and barely survive. Justin Rowlatt and Jane Deith went on a fact-finding mission deep into the Indian state which is the world’s largest tea-growing region (see the full documentary here). What they found may be no news for most of us but was shocking to them – desperate poverty, malnourished workers, underage children striving to become a malnourished worker, faulty equipment exposing them to hazardous chemicals, houses resembling hovels at best, and of course toilets that wouldn’t work. Defecating in the open being the only option for the workers, it is obvious that Swachh Bharat isn’t a concept that these workers have been fortunate enough to be introduced to.
Family of a tea labourer lives here. This is their home.
One thing that did come out of the exposé—which many may not have known—is the existence of Indian Plantation Labour Act of 1951, which clearly outlines that plantation owners are solely responsible for ensuring decent living and working conditions for workers. As per this Act, workers have the right to housing, health facilities, education and even maternity benefits and crèches. Of course, it is another matter that hardly any of these are provided by their employers. In fact, workers don’t even get the the legal minimum wage of Rs 169 per day (in Assam), which is a clear violation of the Minimum Wage Act. Recently, an agreement between Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) and Consultative Committee for the Plantations’ Association (CCPA) increased the wage from Rs 94 per day to Rs 115, to be effective from 1 January 2015. Furthermore, the daily wage will not rise above Rs 137 before 1 January 2018. This when the Indian tea industry’s turnover is expected to be Rs 33,000 crore by 2015. Unfortunately, legitimate workers’ demands are rarely heeded to. Despite a strong grassroots movement in West Bengal for implementation of a reasonable minimum wage in 2014, workers eventually capitulated to their capitalist overlords resulting in an abysmally low increase in the daily wage. There have been estimates that tea garden managements loot Rs15 crores per day from workers – this comes up to Rs5,400 crores per year. Neoliberal policies often tend to be slightly less egalitarian when it comes to the spoils.
The backlash post the investigation has been swift and inevitable, if a little jaded. Though some of Britain’s biggest tea brands including PG Tips, Tetley’s and Twinings promised to work towards improving the conditions of workers, the exact details are a bit vague. Harrods has stopped selling a few brands and Rainforest Alliance has admitted that its audit process may have more than one leaky hole. One of India’s biggest conglomerates, Tata, has demonstrated that it cares about workers by stating its membership to the Ethical Tea Partnership, an organisation committed to preventing the degrading condition that, ironically, most workers find themselves in. Another leading tea company which exports Assam tea, Taylors, in a statement professed extreme surprise and dismay at the BBC report, considering that they had (conveniently) relied on an outsourced certification by Rainforest Alliance, which bafflingly found these tea gardens to be compliant. The company also claims to have visited the estates – which makes one wonder if they even ventured out of their guesthouses to meet the workers. They do assure their customers that as part of the Ethical Tea Partnership they are working with UNICEF to install low-cost toilets in these states. Again, Swachh Bharat seems to be conspicuous by its absence.
Workers here are accustomed to heavy floods and drought conditions. (Photo:Reuters)
What women workers want
Relatively more encouraging is the news that the women tea workers at Kanan Devan Hills Plantations (owned by Tata) in Munnar who had been agitating for a fair minimum wage and bonus had partially secured their demands. The strike began on 6 September after management had struck down their bonus to 10 per cent (from 19 per cent in the previous year), citing dips in profit and falling tea prices – this despite the daily wage being a mere Rs 234 for 12 hours of labour and the fact that the daily output per worker had increased to 31 kilograms from 21. Over 5,000 workers, the majority being women, went on a strike demanding the increase of daily wage to Rs 500 and a bonus of 20 per cent. Coincidentally, and not without a touch of some delicious irony, the Great Place to Work Institute had recently praised Kanan Devan’s bottom-to-top management approach under which 68 per cent of the company’s shares were owned by its employees. It is fascinating to note that this generous on-paper deal has hardly made any positive difference to their plight. The only tangible benefit was a dividend of Rs 300 last year. Interestingly, while a worker can only get Rs 1.50 for every extra kilogram of output, estate supervisors get Rs 4 each, staff members Rs 6 each, and managers Rs 10 each for the same. The main takeaway from this being that the harder you work, the lesser you get.
They do not know much about hazardous chemicals.
What is perhaps most heartening is that the agitation was led and organised by the women workers who steadfastly refused to allow men into it, citing reasons such as that they were easily swayed by alcohol and that it was the women who did the actual work of plucking leaves and carrying and loading the burden. The country’s biggest trade unions such as AITUC (CPI), INTUC (Congress) and CITU (CPM) were forbidden from co-opting the movement, even though at one time they tried to barge into their protest. After all, the workers argued, they had done precious little to improve their conditions and instead preferred to cosy up to the management. Workers also released a list of 150 trade-union leaders who had got bungalows cars and other benefits from the TATA management in KDHP while they had to make do with the daily minimum wage for plucking 21 kg of tea leaves per day at the minimum.
Not suprisingly, the management initially went on the defensive and refuted the charges of the workers. Soon, though, the state government got involved and following talks with the current chief minister Oommen Chandy, the strike was called off after the 20 per cent bonus demand was agreed to (8.33 per cent bonus and 11.67 ex gratia). However, a decision on the issue of the daily wage was deferred for later. Even then, it is a great vindication of workers’ rights and the fact that it was achieved by women and their struggles makes it even more inspiring. It is an unapologetic, brazen and a much-needed defiance of the norms established by political and patriarchal institutions.
Similar strikes were soon called by women workers at other places including Harrisons Malayalam Ltd’s tea estates in Idukki and Wayanad districts, where 500 women workers went on strike and over 11,000 workers of TATA tea resorted to ‘go slow’ plucking in peak plucking season, one of the slogans being ‘we pluck tea leaves, you pluck our lives.’
An interesting angle to this is the caste issue that permeates the everyday lives of most workers. The struggling workers in Munnar are Dalit women workers, mostly Tamil-speaking and of the Pallar caste; they have suffered centuries of oppression, having been brought as indentured labour from nearby Tamil Nadu by the British colonial administration. Not long back in July, BJP president Amit Shah backed the proposal to rename seven sub-castes, including Pallars, as Devendrakula Vellalars and do away with them being called Dalits or SC. Even if this does becomes the case, it is highly unlikely that the conditions of these workers will improve simply by disassociating them from a term. Class oppression is tangible and insidious and cannot be renamed away.
A few facts that need to be kept in mind when discussing plantation workers is that most of them are descendants of millions of indentured workers who were forcibly brought to these areas to work several decades back. Even though they are supposed to be part of the organised sector, as we see in the above cases, their pay is often even less than that in the unorganised sector. By its very nature, plantations require uneducated, low-paid and a steady stream of labourers. Aside from being desperately poor and oppressed, malnutrition and diseases are frequent occurrences. Combine this with the fact that tea gardens are often large and isolated, and workers are completely dependent on the estate for their livelihood. Being poorly educated and with little prospect of alternate employment opportunities, threats of closing down these estates work to the benefit of the owners, depressing the already low wages. In a country where workers’ rights are frequently trampled upon and a healthy minimum wage is an attractive idea at best, these workers have got the shorter end of a very small stick.
While white-collar worker issues are often explored at length by the mainstream media and their intellectuals (think of the NYT article on Amazon) and, at the very least, given lip service by corporates, the problems of blue-collar workers and menial labourers tend to mysteriously disappear from popular discourse. But even when these non glamorous issues are sidelined, what needs to be remembered is that every worker deserves access to basic human rights and a life of dignity – and that is true corporate social responsibility (CSR, as we know it).