Friday, February 14, 2014

Tea Slaves

Tea plantations in India employ more than a million permanent workers, and perhaps twice as  many seasonal laborers. This makes the industry the largest private-sector employer in the country. But workers depend on plantations for more than just employment: millions of workers and their families live on the plantations, and  rely on them for basic services, including food supplies, health care and education. The tea workers of Assam and the adjacent area of West Bengal come from two marginalized  communities – Adivasis (indigenous people) ƒ†and Dalits (so-called untouchable caste) whose ancestors were brought from central India  by British planters. They remain trapped in the  lowest employment positions on the plantation,  where they are routinely treated as social inferiors.

Amalgamated Plantations (a Tata spin-off) employ more than 30,000 people on 24 tea plantations in Assam and neighboring West Bengal. Amalgamated provides tea leaves primarily to Tata Global Beverages, whose Tetley and other brands of tea are widely consumed across the world. Assam’s almost 1,000 plantations produce around one-sixth of the world’s tea. From 2007 to 2013, the quota for plucking  tea-leaf, which is set by employers across the  region, has increased by 40%. There has been  no corresponding improvement in technology  to enable workers to pick faster: workers must  pick as they have always done, by hand or with shears.

The New York Times recently carried a story on the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School report on Amalgamated’s operations. The report paints a grim portrait of life on the tea plantation: dilapidated and crowded housing, hazardous water and sanitation conditions, the denial of basic benefits like health care for workers’ dependents, widespread disregard for occupational safety measures, and pitifully low wages.

Workers said their overseers treated them harshly and denied them basic benefits. To qualify for a paid sick day, workers had to report to the plantation clinic three times a day to prove their illness. Protective equipment was withheld from workers. “When big people come to visit, they give it to us,” Raju Mantra, the son of two plantation workers said of equipment like gloves and masks to protect from pesticides, “but then they put it back in storage, saying that if we wear it every day, it will wear out.” On some plantations, the fee charged for electricity alone amounted to nearly 50% of the workers’ net pay. In almost all  cases, all workers pay the same rate, regardless of individual consumption, for only a few hours  of electricity per day.

 The company’s investors said they planned to transform this sprawling tea estate into a model for sustainable and responsible labor policy through an employee share-holding program. The International Finance Corporation, a branch of the World Bank, gave the new company legitimacy with a sizable investment. In approving funding, the International Finance Corporation stated that Amalgamated promised to “create opportunities for people to escape poverty and improve their lives.” The company said it adhered strictly to the Plantations Labor Act, an Indian law that requires plantation owners to supplement wages, which can be set below state minimums, by providing tea workers with housing, schools, health care and other basic needs.

Tea worker’s rights groups say the Plantations Labor Act has perpetuated the feudal system created by British companies when they first developed the plantations. Today’s plantation workers descend almost exclusively from tribal populations transplanted in the colonial era, having inherited jobs from their parents. The manual labor they perform has changed little in 150 years.  Local advocacy groups say schools on plantations go up to only the fourth grade, and in some schools, there are up to 250 students for each teacher. Most tea workers remain illiterate, the advocates say. Beyond the fences of Assam’s plantations, where tea workers seldom go, there is little demand for unskilled labor. Workers said managers treated them with contempt. Management warned researchers not to trust workers because they were “just like cattle.” Many workers said that speaking on the record meant risking harassment or losing their jobs.

The Plantations Labour Act of 1951 continues to define the employment relationship in this sector. The PLA has never been vigourously enforced and there exists vast gaps in compliance, many of which have only grown larger over time. Presumably, after 60 years of guaranteed health  care, housing, sanitation and food support in a  stable population, social indicators should be  positive. But the opposite is true: the surveys  reveal that tea plantation workers are an  impoverished community living on the margins.  Malnutrition is widespread, along with illiteracy. Tea plantation workers succumb to the “diseases of poverty” such as tuberculosis and typhoid at much higher rates than the rural poor in the villages around them. Furthermore, the system of “benefits" provided ’‘‹†‡ to workers under the PLA – rather than higher  wages – keeps them bound to the plantations,  preventing them from building savings and seeking new opportunities. In the view of many advocates, even a well-implemented PLA would  sustain this dependency. This is particularly  clear when it comes to housing: though multiple generations of workers may have lived in a  house, without any other family home, they  have no rights over it at all, even to make their  own repairs. The planters recognise that control over housing is the major factor enabling them to exercise control over workers.
Š‘•‹‰ With regard to unions, there are important differences emerging between Assam and  West Bengal. In Assam, plantation managers have helped to maintain the monopoly of  the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS), a  largely discredited union. The global union federation for plantations and agriculture, the International Union of Foodworkers does not recognise the ACMS as an affiliate, and in fact, has characterised the ACMS as being “in league with management.” According to workers and experts in the field the ACMS functions largely to implement management policy and discourage  workers’ complaints. In return for this role, Amalgamated deducts union dues from all workers at its plantations, without regard to individual choice,  and passes them on to the ACMS. It refuses to negotiate with any other union.
In West Bengal, however, plantation managers  have been forced to accept union diversity,  including the presence of more vocal,  representative unions, in part as a result of the  rise of newly active separatist movements in  the state. It does appear that the last two years have shifted certain dynamics within the  plantations. For example, union mobilisation in West Bengal forced tea plantations to raise daily wages by more than a third, which in turn  forced plantations in neighboring Assam to raise wages as well. As a general matter, however, it is clear that there are no meaningful avenues for Amalgamated workers  to articulate concerns and seek remedies.  Management can typically count on the isolation of the plantations to ensure against visits by  concerned journalists or NGOs.

The abusive conditions for Amalgamated Plantations workers are consistent with conditions in the sector as a  whole. They are rooted in the colonial origins extremely hierarchical social structure, the  compensation scheme, and the excessive power exercised by management. The compensation scheme originally developed  for the colonial plantations and their migrant workers – low cash wages, supplemented with housing and social benefits has remained unchanged. As in the colonial period, the plantations function as a parallel governance structure, with little active involvement by the  state, whether in setting wages or in monitoring  working and living conditions. This places workers and their families in a relationship of  total dependence on the plantation.
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