The World Bank published a report on the second biggest tea producer in India, a company almost 50% controlled by Tata, the giant Indian multinational that owns the Tetley Tea brand. The report says low wages and poor living and working conditions for the 155,000 people who live on the vast estates owned by Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL) are leading to high levels of malnutrition and ill health.
Plantation owners in India are obliged by law to provide and maintain adequate houses and sanitary toilets for workers, yet we found tea workers living in homes with leaking roofs and terrible sanitation. Many families had no toilets and said they had no choice but to defecate among the tea bushes. A BBC investigative team found living and working conditions so bad, and wages so low, that tea workers and their families were left malnourished and vulnerable to fatal illnesses. They also found a shocking disregard for health and safety, with workers spraying chemicals without protection, and on some estates, children working alongside adults.
The World Bank report was a damning indictment of the efforts of its own subsidiary, International Finance Corporation (IFC), to improve living standards for tea workers. Through the IFC, the World Bank invested $7.8m (£6.3m) to take a 20% stake in APPL back in 2009. The idea was to support an attempt to make tea workers part-owners of the estates where they work, in an effort to preserve jobs and raise standards in the industry. But according to the findings of a two-year investigation by the internal auditor that holds the World Bank Group accountable to its own policies, the IFC has failed on almost every count.
The investigation found that the bank had failed "to respond systematically to issues regarding housing and living conditions" or to correct serious lapses in the use of pesticides, "with the result that workers have been exposed to extremely hazardous chemicals". It said that low wages contributed to workers' acute malnutrition and exposure to disease, quoting a 2014 report commissioned by Tata that found daily wages at the time so low that workers were unable to afford basic nutritional requirements. It found that provision of healthcare and education was inadequate, and workers' rights to unionise and air their grievances were not met. The investigation also concluded that the World Bank had not done enough to ensure child labour was not being used, nor had it responded adequately to workers' complaints that they were being pushed into the share ownership scheme.
Tea workers are trapped in a cycle of dependence that began way back when the first tea estates were planted in India in the 1830s. Very little has changed since then, says Anirudha Nagar, of Accountability Counsel, an organisation supporting the APPL workers.
"With housing tied to their job, they are practically held hostage by their employer," he says. "With abysmally low wages, they face a daily struggle to survive and have no means for advancement. And with poor access to education, their children are left with no option but to become workers themselves."
But let us not forget other eploited workers. At least 13 garment workers were killed and also critically injured eight more people after a fire broke out in a factory on the outskirts of the Indian capital, New Delhi. The blaze started as the workers slept inside the leather factory workshop. Police are investigating the possibility that the factory was illegal and did not have a license to operate in the congested residential area.
"Despite the many disasters we have seen before, and the great amount of attention to the dangerous working conditions in the South Asian garment industry, factories there largely remain unsafe. These workers were killed because they were sleeping in the factory," said Carin Leffler of the Clean Clothes Campaign. "The deep tragedy that took 13 peoples' lives in Sahibabad this morning shows that there is still a long way to go before workers can feel safe."
If you seek to end exploitation in all industries contact:
The World Socialist Party (India): 257 Baghajatin ‘E’ Block (East), Kolkata – 700086,