Yes, Let’s Defend the Rights of Workers Who Provide Us Health Drink

Dalgaon Tea Estate, Birpada, Jalpaiguri, West Bengal: December 15, 2015

On the occasion of 10th International Tea Day (ITD), we extend our greetings to all workers who have assembled here and all the trade unions who are giving leadership to this programme. We also acknowledge the leadership of Ashok Ghosh of UTUC who was among those who had given the call for the observance of the ITD. The first ITD was observed on December 15, 2005 in Delhi, in the wake of reports of numerous instances of closure of tea estates and consequent disruption in the life and livelihood of tea workers, in an unprecedented scale. Worker representatives, small tea growers, industry representatives and academics from various tea producing countries came together and called for coordinated action to protect tea workers the world over.

Reports published in 2000 and 2003, by trade union teams, after visiting tea gardens in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Assam narrated heart-wrenching instances of violations of ‘right to life’ from the closed and abandoned tea gardens. Workers were being starved to death in those gardens where they were without work, wages, alternative sources of income, medical care and living in dilapidated houses devoid of water, sanitation or electricity. Though the intensity of rights violations were grave in closed and abandoned gardens, it was observed that the situation of workers in operational gardens too was quite bleak, with non-payment or delayed payment of wages, non-payment of statutory benefits like provident fund and gratuity, deteriorating health care systems and sanitary conditions and shortfalls in housing provisions.

Unfortunately, in the last 10 years there has not been any positive change in the status of tea industry and the condition of workers. Precariousness of the tea workers, with respect to all parameters discussed above, has only aggravated. While news of deaths of workers from closed or abandoned gardens are pouring in, increasing tensions between workers and managements are being reported from the functioning gardens. Implementation of the provisions of welfare and conditions of work as ensured in the Plantation Labour Act is under stress. This has also challenged the operation of established industrial relations systems in the tea plantations.

Though the industry attributes the crisis in tea gardens to the falling tea prices in the Indian and global markets, CEC’s studies and field exposures have shown that corporate led agenda of moving away from a composite industrial unit model to a differentiated industry by way of separating the functions of agriculture, manufacture and marketing is at the centre of the crisis. Market leaders started concentrating primarily in marketing and to a lesser extent in manufacturing. Imagine a situation when tea obtained at Rs.100 at auction goes at Rs.1000 in retail. There is profit at the retail. Prices rarely fluctuates at the retail level. Consequently, lower the prices for mass consumption tea at the auction, higher are the profits for the market leaders. In order not to absorb the price fluctuations at the auction, the market leaders divest agriculture and manufacturing activities.

The price fluctuations at the auction level becomes an alibi for the tea companies of functioning plantations to reduce cost, a reduction they carry out by stagnating the wages of workers and not providing welfare measures statutorily given to workers like housing, potable water, sanitation and health. Other benefits like provident fund and gratuity also do not get deposited in time. It must also be kept in mind that half the number of workers in tea gardens are not covered under PLA and get only wages for the days they work. We have a clear situation here, someone making money from the sweat and blood of hundreds of thousands of tea workers.

Worst affected are ill-managed tea estates, where management take recourse to easy abandonment of estates leaving workers to fetch for themselves. immiseratiion, ill-health, starvation, distressed migration, trafficking and death become a reality for thousands of workers.

Bold and innovative interventions are required at this moment from both the government and the workers to salvage the situation. Market forces cry out for the extinction of those plantations who could not survive competition. Recall the situation of composite textile mills and its workers in Kanpur and Mumbai when the textile industry went for a similar restructuring.

Tea industry employs people among the most vulnerable in India and government must protect their life and livelihood.

Workers, who are descendants to those who built the plantation, must have the first right over the land, which in any case is not owned by the planters, but taken under lease from the government, if it is closed down.

Workers’ statutory claims (unpaid salaries, provident fund and gratuity) must be settled, before planters reach any settlement with banks.

Trade Unions must find meeting points to shed differences and set up worker cooperatives to run closed and abandoned tea gardens. Durgabari Tea Estate in Tripura is a living example of successful tea worker cooperative.

Government must take legal recourses and make amendments in Tea Act 1953, if necessary, to facilitate these processes so that no worker, who provides for India and the world its health drink, dies of immiseration.