At the same time, tea brands and supermarkets retain around Rs 40, reveals a new research on ‘human cost of Assam tea’ conducted by Tata Institute of Social Sciences & Oxfam India
Guwahati: A 200-gm packet of branded Assam tea is sold in India for Rs 68. Of this, less than Rs 5 is left for workers (using plucking costs as a proxy indicator) while tea brands and supermarkets retain around Rs 40.
This was revealed in a research conducted by Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and Oxfam India recently. The research report, 'Addressing the human cost of Assam tea', included in-depth interviews with 510 workers of 50 tea estates across Assam.
The research shows that the relentless squeeze by supermarkets and brands on the share of the end consumer price for tea makes poverty and hardship for workers in Assam more likely. But, combined with rising costs and the impacts of the climate crisis, it is also contributing to a severe economic crisis for the entire Indian tea industry.
Globally, supermarkets are taking an ever-increasing share of the price paid by shoppers – much of which is channelled to already wealthy shareholders and owners. In Germany and the United States, supermarkets capture 87% and 76% of the price of a pack of black tea, with just 1% accruing to workers on tea estates. Tea workers receive just 2 cents from a packet of Assam black tea that sells for 75 cents in the Netherlands – just 14 cents per pack would be enough to ensure tea workers were paid a living wage, the report said.
The research also found that despite working for over 13 hours a day, workers earn between Rs 137 and Rs 167. It found that tea brands and supermarkets typically capture over two-thirds of the price paid by consumers for Assam tea in India – with just 7% remaining for workers on tea estates.
“Assam government’s commitment to increase the minimum wages of tea plantation workers to Rs 351 met with hurdles of financial viability of the sector. The upcoming Occupational Health and Safety Bill is an opportunity to address some of the hurdles. This bill can enable the struggling Assam tea industry to be viable and at the same time ensure fair living wages and decent working and living conditions for tea plantation workers and their families,” the research report said.
It further added that many women tea pickers regularly clock up to 13 hours of backbreaking work a day receiving between Rs 110 and Rs 130 a day. This wage is so low that half the workers interviewed receive 'Below Poverty Line' ration cards from the government, the report added.
Commenting on the working conditions of the tea garden workers in Assam, the research report further said that the condition of housing and sanitation of these workers are very poor with dilapidated or non-existent facilities. Around 45% of workers interviewed reported suffering from water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, typhoid and jaundice, among others. Women tea workers, including unpaid domestic work, undertake up to 13 hours of physical labour per day after just six hours’ rest. Despite their large numbers, they remain under-represented in trade unions.
Some of key issues that women tea workers face include inaccessible toilets, inadequate maternal and childcare facilities, inadequate maternity benefits and domestic violence.
The study found that most workers are not aware of how their wages are calculated. This is sometimes because payslips are not provided – more than 50% of the workers interviewed said they do not receive a payslip against their weekly or fortnightly payment. Those that do receive it say the payslips can fail to document deductions such as for the worker’s provident fund (pension), electricity, water, medical costs, trade union fees and firewood.
But, as one 34-year-old worker told the research team, even if payslips are provided: “Because of illiteracy, the (pay) slips become insignificant for the workers. We nevertheless keep it for future purposes.”
Provident fund deductions are a statutory requirement, but workers reported being unaware of the amount deducted. They also described difficulties claiming their benefits on retirement. Workers reported that it takes 12–36 months to receive their pension. In one case, the estate has gone into debt and can neither pay the pension nor return the workers’ contributions.
Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India, said, “Tea brands have often questioned the financial viability of paying fair wages to workers, but our research shows that by sharing just 2% additional value of the price of tea fair living wages can be provided to millions of workers in the sector. Indian tea sector continues to be the largest private sector employer but poor implementation of labour laws is putting at risk the viability of the tea industry as a whole.”