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India is the largest producer as well as consumer of tea in the world i.e., about 27 and 22 percent of the world’s total produce respectively. We all must have observed the delighted and joyous faces of the tea plantation workers either in advertisements or in postcards working in beautiful, green tea plantations in Assam.
But do we know the hardships and exploitation faced by them? Sadly, these happy faces of workers hide years of victimization. Pre-Independence, they got exploited from the British tea owner and then after the Independence, the Indian tea owners made them the victims and tortured them.
Introduction: Oxfam Report regarding the information about tea plantation workers
According to recent research conducted in Assam, it has been observed that the tea estate workers working in the tea plantations of Assam receive a minimal share i.e. seven percent of the amount paid by the consumers. The remaining share of the price is largely consumed by the International supermarkets as well as the tea brands companies.
A new research was undertaken by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and was commissioned by Oxfam. As reported by them, the Tata Institute urged for an immediate action to be taken so as to support the exploitation of the tea estate workers.
On interviewing 510 laborers of 50 different tea estates of Assam, the Oxfam report stated that “relentless squeeze by supermarkets and brands on the share of the end consumer price” creating severe adversities and poverty issues for the poor workers.
The reason behind conducting this interview was to determine the major obstructions faced by them. The report further continued stating that, “combined with rising costs and the impacts of the climate crises, is also contributing to a severe economic crisis for the entire Indian tea industry”. Not only the financial difficulties, but they also become prey to lack of basic healthcare facilities.
The CEO of Oxfam India, Amitabh Behar urged for the efforts from both the government in the form of raising the wages of labourers working at tea plantations as well as from the Occupational Health and Safety Bill. He further added that both the bill and protective measures from the government can help in improving the injustice faced by the tea estate workers of Assam.
Explained: The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019
The Occupational, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019 has been introduced by the Ministry of Labour and Employment under the leadership of Mr. Santosh Kumar Gangwar who is the minister of the State (Independent Charge).
The proposed code enhances the coverage of workers. The proposed Code on Wage Bill aims to encompass the already existing laws relating to the remuneration of workers. It also allows the Centre to fix minimum wages for the whole country.
The Code on Wages is among one of the four codes that contain forty-four labour laws in total including amendments so as to improve the way of conducting business and attract maximum investment leading to growth and opportunities. The proposed Code is applicable to trade, industry, manufacture, business, and occupation.
Financial hurdles in increasing minimum wages of plantation workers
It is quite astonishing to know the fact that around 2.5 million Tea Estate Workers toil round the clock in uncivilized and inhuman living conditions. To one’s disbelief, the poor workers have been engaged in such activities since the past 50 years.
After walking around 16 km per day, working 13 hours daily and carrying the load of 24 kgs of tea leaves, they only earn a minimal amount of Rs.137-167 on a day to day basis. The tea leaves grown by the Assam tea estate workers are auctioned and are sold at a premium all over the world. In spite of this fact, there are 87% workers who only earn upto Rs.3500-4500 monthly.
Not only have these workers faced financial obstructions but they have also confronted some safety issues. This is evident from the fact that only 1% labourers get access to protective gear like boots, gloves and masks. Some of them even lack slippers.
Healthcare obstructions faced by the tea estate workers
The healthcare centers in Assam have insufficient medicines out of which 70% of them provide limited services. Moreover, doctors hardly visit these centers thus not keeping a regular check on the diseased workers.
As reported by the Oxfam report, the rate of maternal mortality in tea plantations is the highest which is around 77%. The condition of woman has deteriorated to an extent such that they are forced to continue their work after the very next day of parturition.
Evaluation of the situation
“What we should get, we eventually don’t get”, a statement stated by a tea plantation worker or one can say her sufferer. If these laborers receive sufficient dues timely, it would be then easy for them to cope with the basic problems of house, land and serving children.
On comparison with other states, the tea gardeners there get sufficient dues. Then the question arises why not the same should be done in Assam. A petition has been filed by the tea estate workers demanding Rs.350 per day instead of Rs.167.
But when the same was discussed with the manager he alleged that they were suffering a loss of 14 lakhs whereas the same amount was the per day sales. This clearly shows that was nobody wishes for the progress of tea estate workers. Thus, the employees are working hard and still struggling for decent living wages.
There are 0 toilets in the tea plantations. The homes are in a state of disrepair and in need of repair. A breeding ground for diseases is created adding the poor sanitation facilities to it.
The Occupational, Health and Working Conditions Bill can really improve the situation of struggling tea estate workers of Assam. The bill can help them in coping up with their difficulties and providing them the proper returns on their hard-earned money.
The bill also guarantees equitable wages to the workers providing them decent working and living conditions. The human cost of tea is far too high and such is the truth about the tea plantation workers working in Assam.
Conclusion: Probable Future
As mentioned by the Oxfam report that the tea estate workers receive less than Rs.5 on a 200gm packet of branded tea leave produced in Assam whereas the same packet is sold for an amount of Rs.68 in India and Rs.40 in International supermarkets.
Thus, it is unfortunate to note that the laborers after facing severe hardships still don’t receive their share of profit. Surprisingly, one does not value the tough job performed by these workers and instead exploit them.
One cannot think of a prosperous future by analyzing the present situation. On the other hand, one can think of an improvement in the position of the tea estate workers only if the government takes suitable actions against it. The enhancement in the current situation of Assam workers can only be accomplished by the combined efforts at the individual, organizational and state levels.
In order to support and assist Oxfam India one may contact +91 7097970979 and join the campaign on www.truthabouttea.com. The only mission behind supporting the tea estate workers of Assam is to improve their present situation and support them by coming together.
This support will not only uplift the condition of over a million of tea estate workers but also give them a sense of safety and security. This would further stimulate them to work more efficiently rather than escaping from work.
In concluding this article, I would like to add the views of a renowned actor, Mr. Adil Hussain who expressed his immense grief looking at the current situation of the tea plantation workers in Assam. He stated the harsh reality that despite the tea leaves being sold at various international markets at high premium prices, still, the workers are the ones living in abject poverty.
-This article is brought to you in collaboration with Yashika Kapoor from Fairfield Institute of Management And Technology, GGSIPU, New Delhi.