Bitter brew of neglect in Assam’s tea gardens

| Updated on January 10, 2020 Published on January 09, 2020

Feeling low: Tea estate workers have been agitating for decent wages for the past five years. Daily wage currently hover around Rs 167 . Photo: Roanna Rahman   -  images: roanna rahman

Millions of tea workers in Assam have for decades been deprived of a living wage, healthcare and other basic rights. Will changes to the labour code make a difference?

“If that is how much they are making in a day, then why are we not getting higher wages?” asks Rani*, a tea plantation worker in Assam’s Udalguri district. Back in 2016, the managers at her tea estate in Orang had said they lost ₹14 lakh on the day she and 45 other workers struck work to demand an increase in daily wage from ₹126 to ₹351. “How could they lose the money when the tea leaves were still on the bushes?” she wants to know.

Rani was just back from attending church with her 12-year-old daughter Shelly. Studying in a residential school in Tezpur, Shelly hopes to one day find a career outside the tea estate. “I want to become a nurse,” she says softly, as she settles into a chair in the courtyard with a book in hand.

Rani was barely a teenager when she dropped out of school and went to work in the plantation after her father fell ill. “If only we had decent living wages, social security and proper schools we could have continued with our studies. That is why we have been demanding decent living wages,” she reiterates.

The country’s tea industry employs millions of workers. Over the last five years, tea workers have been agitating for decent wages, but have made little headway.

Under the Plantation Labour Act (PLA) of 1951, estate owners have to provide workers food rations, houses, crèches, canteens, recreational facilities, healthcare and education. However, in the absence of robust implementation, workers end up with a raw deal.

As part of the Centre’s proposed labour code changes, the PLA (along with 12 other labour laws) will be subsumed into the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019. The code, which seeks to regulate health and safety conditions in establishments with 10 or more employees, is currently being reviewed by a parliamentary panel.

Until 2014, the daily wage of a tea worker was about ₹94. Typically, there’s a hike of ₹2-3 every two or three years. In 2018, the Assam government issued a notification to increase the wage to ₹351, but plantation owners opposed, saying it was unviable. In August 2019, the Indian Tea Association (ITA), the apex industry body, announced it was facing losses and slowdown, leaving the workers with even less hope.

A pittance: The country’s tea industry is the largest formal private-sector employer


Global supermarkets and brands that source from Assam take a sizeable cut — up to 95 per cent in some cases — from the sale price of every kilogram of packaged tea. Less than 5 per cent remains with tea estates for workers’ payments and other expenses.

Assam accounts for 52 per cent of the country’s tea production; the average auction price in 2018 was ₹156.43 per kg in Assam and ₹138.83 elsewhere. Apart from stagnant prices and low demand, the industry routinely blames its woes on the so-called ‘social costs’ — namely the PLA.

Like almost all of Assam’s tea workers, Rani’s ancestors came to work in the estates from the Chota Nagpur plateau — a region encompassing much of Jharkhand and the adjacent parts of Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar and Chhattisgarh. As she dwells on the sweat and blood of the Adivasi workers who built the plantations from scratch, there is a huge sense of ownership in her narration, as also a feeling of betrayal at being uncared for by the plantations in their turn.

For instance, the PLA mentions ‘basic education facility’. But while most plantations have at least two primary schools — one government-run and the other run by the company — they have no high schools. The absence of bus services, poor infrastructure and lack of teachers are among the leading factors for a high dropout rate in this region.

“The plantation will not be able to handle a literate workforce because they will raise questions on wages, on welfare, everything. Keeping them ignorant works in their favour,” says Melkas Toppo, vice-president of the All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA), which is fighting for the rights of Adivasi students and tea workers.

When the PLA was passed in 1951, planters argued that they were not in a position to take on the added burden. The industry witnessed depression in 1952-53, but after it picked up in 1955, the government enforced the Act.

The workers are entitled to a weekly ration of 3kg each of rice and wheat flour and 250-300g of tea leaves a month. *Maria, from a neighbouring tea estate, also in Udalguri, is angry at the poor quality of the foodstuff supplied — lumpy rice and bitter, smelly wheat and tea leaves. “The tea leaves are dust. We grow them and yet we don’t get the good tea,” she says.

The promised healthcare, too, is far from adequate. “There are no doctors in our plantation hospital and the compounder isn’t very helpful. They give antibiotics for everything. I have stopped going to them,” adds Maria.

A 2019 report by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Guwahati — ‘Decent Work for Tea Plantation Workers in Assam: Constraints, Challenges and Prospects’ — shows that the incidence of tuberculosis, malaria, jaundice and hypertension is very common among workers, yet the plantations aren’t equipped to treat these diseases. Anaemia is the leading contributor to maternal deaths in Assam’s tea estates; the MMR (maternal mortality ratio) in 2017 was 363 per one lakh live births (more than double the national figure). “Healthcare within plantations is in a shambles,” says Stephen Ekka, director of PAJHRA, an indigenous organisation working for the rights of Assam’s tea workers.

While we are talking to Maria, her neighbour *Mukesh walks in. His eyes are bloodshot and his skin is itchy and flaky, for he has been spraying pesticide on the tea plants. “The plantation does not provide us with protective gear. The workers are given gloves, overalls, boots and masks only when there is an audit or when some external agency arrives for a visit. This is taken away within a day or two,” he says. Other workers in five different plantations voice similar complaints.

“I am taking the medicines and skin cream prescribed by a pharmacist outside the tea garden. The hospital here did not have anything and I cannot lose a day’s wage to go to the hospital 30 km away,” Mukesh says.

Unlike Maria, he is a temporary (or ‘faltu’ in the local Sadri language) worker who is not entitled to paid sick leave.

Those entitled are only marginally better-off — they can claim sick leave only if they show up at the plantation hospital twice a day to prove they are sick.

Housing for workers is mandated by the Act. While the insides of the houses are impeccably clean, the structures — whether concrete or made of mud and bamboo — are in a state of disrepair in most cases. The walls are heavily patched, covered in soot, and prone to seepage.

With the tin roofs broken or cracked in many places, the residents use a unique stopgap arrangement — nilaami sarees, that is old sarees stitched together, with frills on the sides, and nailed in place to form a sort of false ceiling. But this is barely enough to keep out the rain, as the heavy stains on them show.

“Calls for repairing the houses or even cleaning the streets have fallen on deaf ears. The management just does not respond. Workers who can afford to pay for the repair do it on their own, while the rest make do with piecemeal adjustments,” says *Suresh, a tea worker at a plantation in Naogaon district.

He adds that workers do not have basics such as toilets and drinking water supply. Only a few can afford to dig their own tube wells; the rest depend on a single water tap shared by 10-15 houses in each lane, he says. With the parents at work, the onus of collecting water from these community taps falls on the young children after they return from school around lunchtime.

Toilets are largely missing in the houses. Wherever the plantation has provided one, the cost of cleaning the septic tank — earlier borne by the company — now falls on workers. “They don’t care,” says *Michael, who worked at a tea estate near Balipara in Sonitpur district for nearly 34 years.

The PLA, in fact, mandates providing separate toilets for female and male workers at regular intervals within the garden. The reality is that, even today, there are no toilets or changing rooms for women, who form the majority of workers, in the tea gardens.

Working almost 12 hours during peak season, the women often don’t urinate for long in the absence of toilets.

Sometimes they relieve themselves behind tea bushes, but this leads to injuries and infections when they come in contact with the stubs of tea plants, leeches, broken bottles, and pesticides.

Menstrual periods prove even more harrowing, as the women continue working through rain or shine without changing their sanitary cover for close to 12 hours.

“Women work through this discomfort and end up with infections and other health risks,” Maria says.

“We give our life to the gardens, we deserve better,” adds a sardar (supervisor) at an Orang tea estate. Many of the stakeholders now hope the proposed labour code changes will help erase intergenerational labour injustice in Assam’s tea gardens.


*Names of tea workers changed to protect identity

Savvy Soumya Misra works with Oxfam India

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Published on January 09, 2020
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