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.
In India, nine out of every 10 Indian households consume tea daily. They buy largely packaged tea from well-known brands such as Tata, Brooke Bond and Lipton but also from smaller local brands. Tea from Assam remains one of the most recognized and valued by Indian consumers, and industry insiders estimate that 80% of tea produced in Assam is consumed in the domestic market.
About 45% of Indian tea production is channelled through the auction system where only a small number of brokers – such as J Thomas & Co Pvt Ltd (which handles 37% of tea auctioned in India, Eastern Tea and Contemporary Brokers – are important players.
The packaging, branding and marketing stages of the tea value chain globally have also demonstrated high market concentration internationally. Just seven companies – Unilever, Van Rees, Finlays, Tata Tetley, Twinings, Teekanne and Ostfriesische Tee Gesellschaft – were estimated to account for 90% of tea traded into European and North American consumer markets in 2006.
Altogether 80% of Assam tea is consumed domestically in India and it is also widely exported to the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and the USA, among others. These four countries alone collectively imported nearly 40,000 tonnes of black tea from India in 2018. Many supermarkets in the United States and Europe stock either private label black or Assam tea, alongside well-known branded varieties of Assam.
Despite tea being a year-round crop (with seasonal peaks), the study found that employment is not guaranteed – even for so called “permanent workers”. Worker-manager conflict over wages and conditions has led to some estates closing completely, leaving workers destitute. A worker on a government-owned estate that had closed for three years from 2001 to 2004 said that during the closure, workers and their families only avoided starvation by seeking menial jobs outside the estate, or selling wood stolen from nearby forests.
Case Study: Estate closures highlight the dependence of tea workers on them
On December 13, 2017, the workers of Bogidhola tea estate protested in front of the owner’s bungalow against the non-payment of their provident funds, gratuities and bonuses, to which they were entitled.
The owner opened fire on the workers, injuring 14 of them. The owner was subsequently arrested, and on February 3, 2018 the district administration closed the estate. The workers now struggle to earn enough for two meals per day. They have lost all the other benefits they used to get from the estate, including rations and a medical allowance.
Most of the women workers are now plucking tea in the nearby private tea gardens as daily labourers – though this work is not guaranteed either. They receive between Rs 110 and Rs 130 a day – well below the lowest paid permanent worker, who also receives in-kind benefits. The men travel outside the area to find work.
One of the interviewees said he often travels the 21km to the main town to find work as a daily labourer, only to return without having found any. Another was just returning from working in a stone quarry two hours’ walk away. The commute is particularly hard for him as he has to get home before dark because of an eye condition that causes low visibility at night. He has not been able to access medical help because the hospital has been shut down. He also described how he and his family sit up all night when it rains because rain pours in through the holes in the roof.
According to Oxfam-commissioned researchers, there is a growing tendency to employ temporary workers on estates, as they are not eligible for PLA-mandated benefits or provident fund provisions. However, on most of the estates visited by researchers, they found no specific criteria or wage advantage for being a permanent worker. There were also no promotion mechanisms for workers; some had been working for 15–20 years on the same pay grade.
Case study – Job and housing insecurity
A worker interviewed by Oxfam-commissioned researchers reported that he was suffering from tuberculosis. He was unable to do the regular work his employers expected of him, and they would not give him lighter work to accommodate his illness. When he sought medical treatment from them, instead of receiving help, he was immediately dismissed. That was over a year ago and he remains unable to work or earn a living. Other workers told the researchers of families that had been evicted from their housing because the only tea estate worker in the family had become too ill to continue. The loss of their job means they are no longer eligible for the housing that comes with the job, so the families not only lose their wage earner, but also become homeless.
There is weak and inadequate representation for workers, especially women
The research confirmed the numerous media, academic and NGO reports of poor housing on Assam’s tea estates. Workers reported either receiving no help at all from management in improving their housing, or delays of up to four years in carrying out repairs.
Some workers reported that leaking roofs have meant their families had to use umbrellas inside the house during the rainy season. This is a serious issue in Assam, where heavy rains are common. As recently as July 2019, severe floods devastated the region. Some tea estates no housing at all was provided. Many workers reported living in kutcha (crude, makeshift) housing, sometimes that they built themselves with no compensation from management. Others reported that management prohibits the building of pucca (solid, permanent) housing on the estate.
Lack of access to clean water:
Researchers discovered severe water problems in every tea estate visited. Workers say they are required to pay between Rs 60 and Rs 300 a month for water provided by the estate, which many cannot afford.
Others have water provided by the government, but, as one worker explained, “We do not have time to stand in the line to collect water from the government taps. The government water supply is available only from 7.30am to 8.30am. We need to be at the garden by 7.45am.”
Oxfam’s campaign to end human suffering and gender inequality in food supply chains urgently calls on supermarkets to act to protect the rights of workers in their global food supply chains, and to increase the transparency of their sourcing.
It also calls on governments in producer countries to put in place a policy agenda that supports, rather than undermines, crucial labour rights for women food producers.
Assam tea, with its isolated, dependent, under-educated and predominantly female workforce, is a classic example of a supply chain with high risks of human rights violations. The research that Oxfam has commissioned confirms that Assam tea workers supplying supermarkets in the USA and Europe continue to be denied their basic human rights and are not sufficiently empowered to claim those rights.
The research demonstrates that companies profiting from the Assam tea trade are failing to abide by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which call on companies to respect the rights of workers and enable them to attain remedy for any wrongs they suffer. It also shows that the governments of Assam, India and buying countries could do more to live up to their responsibility to protect the human rights of workers on Assam tea estates. Companies at all stages of the value chain, as well as governments, need to take urgent action to ensure that workers producing this globally valued product can enjoy and defend a decent, healthy and viable life. Supermarkets and their first-tier suppliers, which are gaining the largest share of the end consumer price of Assam tea, are the ones with sufficient leverage to lead the process of change.
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.”
Expressing serious concern over the current status of team garden workers in Assam management trustee of Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL) Foundation, Dhiraj Kakoti, said, “There is a Plantation Labour Act as of today which requires many amendments due to which is becoming a hindrance rather than an enabler to the Tea industries. This needs to be revisited. As per the act, the tea management has to provide housing, school, medical, ration and other facilities to the workers and authorized dependents. But if we look into the realistic situation today, there are more than 50 per cent non dependents and non-employees in tea gardens and the issue lies with these populations.”
At present, the scenario of the tea estates is such that out of 10,000 residents, nearly 5,000 are unauthorised dependents. There are various reasons behind this like lack of mobility, assurance of security in terms of facilities provided by tea managements, Kakoti said.
“Even the students and civil organisations representing the tea workers like All Assam Tea Tribe Students Association (AATSA) are not encouraging the mobility, and they want to stay inside the tea garden premises engaged in various contractual works. It is legacy that has been carried on for 65-70 years and until those unauthorised people are not moved out of the tea estates, these problems won’t find a solution. It is very necessary relook into this matter. At a time when the government is facilitating various developmental schemes for the people, why tea garden workers are kept apart in benefiting from them?”
Contradictorily, if we look into the condition of the non-workers, who had moved out of the tea gardens at present day, we will find their situation to be far better but those still residing inside the gardens are lacking developments, he regretted, adding : It is a large issue and I feel that the government is realising now about the growing concern.
“The labour lines inside the tea gardens should be extricated from tea garden management and the government should provide some kind of compensation for the settlements of the non-workers. Water facility, electricity, road developments should be provided to them by the government like any other villages and also availed them to enjoy the benefits provided in terms of government scheme. And those willing can come and work in the tea estates like any other small tea growers. This is the only solution that can be best incorporated for improving the condition of the tea community,” APPL’s Kakoty said.
Senior Assam journalist Mrinal Talukdar, talking about the situation of tea workers in the state, said, “Tea labourers are governed by the Plantation Labour Act. For a better future of the tea labourers, Plantation Labour Act must be scrapped and all the benefits go to the labourers via cash and kind should be made cash and government of India as well as government of Assam should take care of them like any other ordinary citizens of India or Assam because in rural Assam a man gets rice is Re 1 per kilogram, a man gets a house under government scheme, a man gets free education, a man gets access to health but in rural Assam, the panchayati benefits are not passed on to the labourers because of the existence of the Plantation Labour Act.”
If the Plantation Labour Act is removed then these labourers will be able to enjoy the benefit like any other villagers of India, including subsidised rice, subsidised housing, free education and free health, this is the contradiction, he said. “Any amount of study in past, present and even in future too will reflect the same thing if the Plantaion Labour Act is not removed,” he added.
“If it is removed then the amount of money which is provided as ration money, including rice and salt and cash money should be given together along with other facilities they have. Even the tea garden employee, the labourers and the tea garden management want the Plantations Act to be scrapped but it still going on. For this reason, tea gardens are also suffering a lot as they had to pay for their ration, housing, hospital facilities and even education of the labourers,” Talukdar added.