It is not the first time the Socialism Or You Money Back blog has posted upon the dire conditions of the workers that provide us with our daily cuppa – here, here and here - and we make no apology for returning to the subject.
Tea workers are vulnerable to exploitation because the plantations control so many aspects of their lives. A joint investigation by Radio 4's File on Four and BBC News in Assam, north-east India, found workers living in broken houses with terrible sanitation. Many families have no toilets and say they have no choice but to defecate amongst the tea bushes. Living and working conditions are so bad, and wages so low, that tea workers and their families are left malnourished and vulnerable to fatal illnesses. There was also a disregard for health and safety, with workers spraying chemicals without protection, and on some estates, child labour being used.
Plantation owners in India are obliged by law to provide and maintain "adequate" houses, and sanitary toilets for workers. Yet homes on the tea estates were in terrible disrepair, with leaking roofs and damp and cracked walls. Many toilets are blocked or broken. Workers said their homes were not repaired despite repeated requests to management, often over many years. The drains are open and unlined and many clogged with effluent. In some cases, cesspits are overflowing into the living areas of people's homes. Many homes have no electricity, and on one estate workers had to drink rainwater piped from a stream.
McLeod Russel's Assam estates supply tea to the companies that own PG Tips, Liptons, Tetley and Twinings. A manager on an estate owned by the world's biggest tea producer admitted with an astounding degree of understatement there is "a huge backlog of repairs". The manager described conditions for some workers as "not acceptable". The head of the Assam branch of the Indian Tea Association, which represents tea producers in India, also accepted that conditions appeared to be well below standard. "Let me be clear," Sandip Ghosh told the BBC, "cesspools and open defecation are not acceptable to me or the association. These issues need to be addressed."
Many Indians live in dismal housing, but Indian law says decent housing and sanitation are part of a tea worker's pay. This is the justification plantation owners give for the extremely low wages in the industry. Tea workers in Assam earn 115 rupees a day, just over £1 ($1.50) , significantly below the minimum wage (177 rupees in Assam). This combination of appalling conditions and low pay on tea plantations can be deadly. Studies have confirmed levels of malnutrition on tea estates are very high, even by India's woeful standards.
Nine out of 10 patients from tea plantations are malnourished, according to the medical director of Assam Medical College, one of the main general hospitals serving the tea region. Professor AK Das says malnutrition makes tea workers and their families vulnerable to diseases caused by their unhygienic living conditions. "Diseases of poverty" are common, he says, with lots of patients coming in with diarrhoea, respiratory tract infections, skin lesions and serious infections like TB and meningitis. He describes a tragic cycle: children come in so weak from malnutrition they struggle to recover from curable illnesses, and then quickly relapse after they are released from hospital. As a result, Prof Das says, tea workers' children - and their parents - are significantly more likely to die of their illnesses than other patients at the hospital.
The BBC found other abuses. One girl who said she was 14, was picking tea at the prestigious Doomur Dullung estate. She said she had been working full time for two months. Doomur Dullung is owned by one of the oldest tea companies in the world, Assam Company, and supplies Twinings, Yorkshire Tea, Harrods and Fortnum and Mason. Two other children said they had been employed full time on estates owned by Assam Company since they were in their early teens. The UN rules on child labour say no child under 15 should work full time.
There was also a disregard for health and safety on some tea estates. On one estate owned by Assam Company workers were spraying pesticides without the protective equipment required by law. These workers said although protective equipment was given out once a year, it would wear out within a couple of months and was not replaced. They reported side effects including breathing difficulties, numbness of the hands and face, a burning sensation on the skin and profound loss of appetite. On one McLeod Russel estate, workers were spraying chemicals with overalls but no other protection. Professor Das said he regularly sees patients suffering serious side effects from pesticide exposure.
Tea estates also police access to the workers' living areas very tightly, despite access being guaranteed by law. The right of public access is supposed to enable people to visit them to check on their welfare. Yet the BBC was denied entry to the workers' living area of one of McLeod Russel's estates, and were even imprisoned briefly within the factory compound.
The fact that there is a very serious issue with living and working conditions on tea plantations in Assam is well known. In January last year Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute published a major study into conditions on estates part-owned Tata, the giant Indian industrial conglomerate that also owns Tetley Tea. The report said the "inhumane" and "abusive" conditions it found were endemic throughout the industry.
All the estates the BBC visited have been certified by the Rainforest Alliance and awarded its "frog seal", displayed on the packaging of many leading tea brands. Rainforest Alliance is an NGO that claims to work to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods. It says its frog seal signals that businesses are managed according to "rigorous criteria" designed to "protect workers, their families and local communities". Stephen Ekka, an activist with the local NGO PAJHRA, is campaigning to improve conditions on the tea estates. He told the BBC he believes the Rainforest Alliance's frog logo "is more about selling tea than about empowering workers".