Addressing the Human Cost of Assam Tea: An agenda for change to respect, protect and fulfil human rights on Assam tea plantations
Over 850 million people in India consume tea daily. Despite this, tea plantation workers are often subject to inadequate working and living conditions with low wages, gender inequality and few employment benefits. This report on tea plantation workers in Assam was published by Oxfam International in October 2019.
The 43-page publication discusses
the political, economic, and social background
of tea cultivation in Assam; the production and consumption of tea in India and
globally; living and working conditions of tea plantation workers; women farm
workers; an analysis of the tea supply chain; tea workers’ wages; and policy
recommendations for the industry.
It contains research
by the Paris-based Bureau
for the Appraisal of Social Impacts for Citizen Information, as well as the
results of a survey of 510
workers across 50 Assam tea estates conducted by the Tata Institute of Social
Sciences (TISS), Guwahati.
It is estimated that up to 750,000 men, women and children – poor, landless and largely tribal people – were brought from central India to work in Assam’s tea plantations between 1870 and 1900. Many plantation workers today are descendants of these early migrants. These workers are not eligible for government benefits or quotas for Scheduled Tribes as they are not indigenous to the state, despite being its citizens. The report states that the workers are perceived as outsiders and remain excluded socially, politically and economically.
Permanent tea plantation workers across districts are paid between Rs. 137 and 170 every day, in cash. Private plantations pay around Rs. 167 daily, whereas State-owned farms pay as low as Rs. 137. This is well below the minimum wage for unskilled agricultural work in Assam – Rs. 254.91.
Local activists and organisations in Assam estimate that tea workers required Rs. 330 per day in 2014 and Rs. 400 in 2017 to cover their living costs.
More than a third (37 per cent) of the households surveyed by TISS across 50 tea estates faced recurrent debt – where daily expenditures exceeded income.
Some surveyed tea workers had been working on the same pay grade for 15 to 20 years.
Employers at tea estates are increasingly taking on temporary workers as they are not eligible for benefits mandated by the centre’s Plantation Labour Act, 1951.
The tea estates surveyed had severe water problems. Workers reported having to pay between Rs. 60 and Rs. 300 for clean water, and that many could not afford it. Some described the water as being dirty and unfit for consumption.
Even toilets at several estates were reported to be inadequately maintained by employers. Some estates had no toilets at all, leading to open defecation.
Women are predominantly employed for the labour-intensive job of harvesting tea at the estates. This is because of the general perception that women’s hands are better suited for plucking the delicate tea leaves. The surveyed women workers had low literacy and education levels and no union representation.
The report states that there were 363 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in Assam’s tea estates in 2017, compared with 174 deaths for the rest of India. According to 2016 research by the Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition (a worldwide collective focused on securing the right to food), women at tea plantations are expected to carry on doing the same intensity of labour even during pregnancy. While most take a month’s break after delivery, some workers are made to join work the day after.
Plucking costs at tea estates have reduced despite an increase in demand for premium brands of black tea, the report states. Labour costs have only increased from Rs. 23.6 per kg of tea in 2003 to Rs. 24.68 in 2017.
In several countries – including Germany, Netherlands, UK and USA – supermarkets and tea brands receive a major part of the tea’s market price, whereas workers receive less than 10 per cent of the amount.
Focus and Factoids by Nivedita Gautam.