There seems to be an ongoing labour crisis in the organised tea gardens in India. This predicament has been aggravated by the stagnancy in the Indian tea industry. Looking back, the tea estates were initiated during the British period and operated under oppressive structures that mainly exploited the tea garden workers. Since independence, there have been some reforms but tea garden workers still remain marginalised in many cases.
The Indian tea sector has expanded to become the second largest global producer of tea. The sector now employs more than 3.5 million people in 1,686 estates and 157,504 small plantation holdings in India. More than half of the employees are women who are mainly involved in tea plucking.
The gap between policies and practices remain prominent in this sector. A Report titled ‘A life without dignity – the price of your cup of tea’ by Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition published in 2016 informs, “Workers are often denied access to many government schemes. For example, a rural housing scheme, Indira Awas Yojana, is never extended to them because their houses are on ‘company land’; water points, roads and even schools are never developed because they are the ‘company’s responsibility’.”
In case of the tea estates in West Bengal, historically, most of the tea garden workers were moved from elsewhere to work as garden workers. During the British rule, tea workers were brought in mostly from Jharkhand and they were relocated in the tea plantations. Then they were given certain facilities like housing and food.
Ziaul Alam, General Secretary, All India Plantations Workers’ Federation and Convenor, Joint Forum of Trade Unions of Tea Industry, told BE, “The tea industry presently is suffering from reverse migration of labourers to other professions. The workers are trying to find jobs elsewhere for better payments and also to leave the remote and forlorn tea gardens for better quality of living and comfort.”
These workers have been without access to land rights for centuries as many of them have been working in tea estates for generations. They were forced to depend on their livelihood earned from the tea estates - making them a captive population. A movement was initiated by tea garden workers in 2005, when they demanded a right to own land within tea estates. This movement was linked with the movement that gave birth to the Forest Rights Act. However, they are yet to receive land patta or the ‘Record of Rights’.
At the onset, the tea garden workers were forced to work in exchange of only certain facilities and items such as coal and food grains. Later, following waves of movements, tea garden workers could ascertain access to a money-based wage systems along with certain facilities and items - which they received in exchange of their services. During 2014, the labourers were getting a daily wage of around Rs 95 in West Bengal. Currently, their wages have increased to Rs 167 in Assam and Indian Rs 176 in West Bengal. However, it is much higher in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka where the Minimum Wages Act has been implemented.
Alam told BE, “The state governments of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala have performed better compared to West Bengal and north-eastern states. After consistent movements organised by the tea plantation trade unions, during December, 2018, the state government of West Bengal had to place the report by the Minimum Wage Advisory Committee and but is yet to notify the minimum wage for plantation workers. In Assam, the state government has notified the minimum wage by forming a Minimum Wage Committee.”
As the cash wage of tea garden workers is very low in northern India, they are given some statutory benefits in kind like food grains and fuel. The Plantation Labour Act (PLA), 1951 also ensures the supply of these provisions.
The Tea Board of India grants financial assistance to build or develop hospitals for the treatment of labourers and their families and for building schools for the children of estate workers. For creation of more employment opportunities, the Tea Board is also sanctioning financial aid to the institutions who are conducting vocational training courses for plantation workers and their families.
What needs to change
In spite of securing certain benefits through movements, many tea garden workers are still exposed to acute malnutrition and various diseases, misuse of labour laws, exploitative working hours, shortage of drinking water and inadequacy of housing and sanitary facilities. Number of school-dropouts is also increasing in recent years.
Closure of tea gardens due to weak market demand is another problem that leads to unemployment of estate workers. For example, 600 tea garden workers have lost their jobs as the Turturi tea garden in West Bengal’s Alipurduar district closed in 2017. Alam said, “In the last six-seven years, many tea gardens are closing down in West Bengal. Earlier, if a tea garden closed down, the previous state government led by the Left Front tried to provide employment to the unemployed workers through the MGNREGA. They would also be given food grains to survive.”
Shreya Mitra, a researcher of the Visva-Bharati University, in her paper titled ‘Life of workers in tea gardens of North Bengal: A study on food security issues’ wrote, “Between 2000 and 2015, 1400 people have died in 17 tea gardens in the north Bengal. In the working estates too, conditions of the tea garden workers are pathetic because of miserably low wages.”