In Assam’s tea gardens, temporary workers are called ’faltu’. While in Assamese, the word means ‘useless’, they are anything but that

With the Assam elections due in April 2021, the movement of tea plantation workers to hike the minimum wages from Rs 167 to Rs 351.33 (which had been promised by the state government) has gained momentum once again.

When the current BJP-led government came to power in 2016, they promised wage revision along with promises of setting up of model schools inside the plantations and improving maternal health and anaemia among women workers.

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To be fair, the government did issue a notification in 2018 revising the wages to Rs 351.13 per day but this was challenged by the plantation owners and then a one-man committee was formed to look into it. Nothing moved since wages of tea garden workers was never a priority and Rs 167 remained the wages for the permanent workers. With the next polls in five months, all the promises made to the workers remain unfulfilled.

This is an uphill task for the permanent workers and while the trade unions’ are gearing up to bring their wage issue to the centre of the debate once again, the faltu workers continue to remain outside of the discussion orbit with no union to back them and negotiate for their rights and wages.

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In Assam’s tea gardens, temporary workers are called ’faltu’. While in Assamese, the word means ‘useless’, they are anything but that. They constitute half of the workers in the tea gar-dens (the other half being permanent workers) and form a large chunk of workers (70%-75%) during the peak plucking season. What explains this is the disparity in wages. While the minimum wages for a permanent worker is pegged at Rs 167 a day, the wages for a temporary worker is worse at Rs 135, especially during the lockdown.

The temporary workers were shortchanged from the beginning. The Plantation Labour Act (PLA), 1951 did not provide for them and neither does the new Codes on Wages. For in-stance, in the new Codes on Wages, while the permanent tea garden workers can look for-ward to wage revisions every six months and the backing of Trade Unions to address grievances, there continues to be absolute no mention or reference to the temporary workers of the tea gardens.

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In Assam’s tea gardens, temporary workers are called faltu’. While in Assamese, the word means ‘useless’, they are anything but that. They constitute half of the workers in the tea gardens (the other half being permanent workers) and form a large chunk of workers (70%-75%) during the peak plucking season. What explains this is the disparity in wages. While the minimum wages for a permanent worker is pegged at Rs 167 a day, the wages for a temporary worker is worse at Rs 135, especially during the lockdown.

The temporary workers were shortchanged from the beginning. The Plantation Labour Act (PLA), 1951 did not provide for them and neither does the new Codes on Wages. For instance, in the new Codes on Wages, while the permanent tea garden workers can look forward to wage revisions every six months and the backing of Trade Unions to address grievances, there continues to be absolute no mention or reference to the temporary workers of the tea gardens.

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What explains the disparity between the wages is the profiteering of the plantation. And since they are not covered under the PLA, they are open to abuse as well. For instance, the employers can go ahead and engage workers below 18 years as well. During Oxfam India’s Truth About Tea Campaign 2019, we found instances where children (below 18 years) who had dropped out of school engaged as garden workers, along with work as labourers in the paddy fields.

When the pandemic hit and a lockdown was imposed, the informal sector workers i.e. 93% of the workforce was badly hit— the denial of minimum wages, decent working conditions, lack of social security and entitlements and job losses. The tea gardens too suffered. But the worst hit were the temporary workers.

When the tea gardens resumed work, they did so with half the capacity and that too with permanent workers. The ‘faltu’ workers had to seek work in paddy fields, small tea gardens and even construction sites closer to the towns. The wages were far less than what they normally received. To add to it the employers hesitated to engage the ‘faltu’ workers stating the high risk of community transmission since they lived in labour lines and might be potential carriers of the coronavirus.

What Temporary Workers Want

If we back up a little and look at the macro picture, the tea garden workers anyway have poor wages and abysmal work conditions. They have no drinking water facilities or toilets or changing rooms in the gardens. They live on the plantation in labour lines (which is where the workers live) with no running water supply or proper toilets. The workers have been struggling for decent living wages; the workers unions have been at loggerheads with the tea plantations for the rights and entitlements which are promised but often denied. But in all of this the temporary workers situation is worse; they are invisible in the tea supply chain and in the constant pursuit of becoming permanent.

Not only are the wages low, the ‘faltu’ workers are denied non-cash benefits that are provided to the permanent workers such as housing, ration, medical facilities, schools, creches, and clubs for recreation. Women temporary workers suffer a worse fate. If she gets pregnant, she gets no benefits except a three month unpaid leave. This is despite the fact that her contribution to the garden is the same as other permanent workers.

A lot of the perks mentioned above — but most importantly living quarters in the labour lines — is a lure for many to continue as temporary workers until they become permanent. So much so that even when young adults migrate to work in other cities, they do so with a clear mandate to come back in a couple of years to join the garden, albeit in a better position than their parents, who worked in the gardens.

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It remains a different matter altogether then, that the non-cash component of permanent workers are actually entitlements, adjusted in their cash component. And the meagre Rs 167 is justified by the non-cash benefits. The ‘faltu’ workers do not get housing, monthly ration, sick leaves, and access to healthcare facility. Their situation is clearly much worse, than the permanent workers.

Though healthcare in the plantation is dismal, the permanent worker is better off than a temporary worker. The former gets referred from by the garden hospital to the civil hospital. The worker can get himself treated in the civil hospital and get reimbursed. The catch though is that the reimbursements come in instalments and it may take many months, and that they have to first make the out of pocket expenditure on health that many cannot afford.

But on the other hand, for a temporary worker, there is no facility of reimbursements at all, so they are pretty much on their own. Mukesh, a temporary worker who decided to get his treatment for skin burns (which he got while spraying pesticide in the tea garden) from the local pharmacist outside the plantation. “I am taking the medicines and using the skin cream prescribed by the pharmacist. It is working. I cannot lose a day to go to the hospital.” He is a temporary worker and does not get paid sick leave.

Apart from healthcare, they do not get housing in the labour lines unless they are permanent workers. It is important to understand that the tea garden workers, are adivasis from the Chota Nagpur Plateau regions and were brought by the Britishers 200 years ago and were almost like bonded labourers. Their conditions did not improve much even after the PLA was enacted in 1956 and up until now, they continue to live in poverty. Perhaps the one decent thing that they had on their side was the housing that was provided to them by the plantation and though houses are hardly maintained and taken care of by the plantations, this is something that they aspire for.

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There has always been an ambiguity around the criteria for becoming a permanent worker; many workers start of as temporary workers and end up becoming permanent only in lieu of someone else (permanent worker) in the family either retiring or passing away. This lack of clarity persists in an industry which is nearly 200 years old and has over 1 million worker.

They work as hard as the next permanent worker, yet they have remained beyond the fringes of any discussion and debates on the tea supply chain. They seek permanency not just for a meagre Rs 32 but also a better and safer future for their children. And if they become permanent, the unions would raise their voice for them as well.

The authors:

Ranjana Das is presently working as the Lead Specialist-Private Sector Engagement in Oxfam India. Her work is currently on Responsible Supply Chain mainly in Assam tea and UP and Maharastra sugar sectors.

Nimisha Katakee, works with Oxfam India under its Private Sector Engagement theme. At OIN, she is working in the Assam Tea Supply Chain initiative, in 7 districts of Assam.



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