Change the system: don't keep tea workers poor

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Change the system: don’t keep tea workers poor

By Sabita Banerji


Tea pickers in Wayanad, India. Steenbergs under a Creative Commons Licence

Sabita Banerji writes about getting rights for people who work on plantations in India.

Last September, the BBC showed the terrible working conditions on the tea plantations in Assam. Tea comes from here to be sold in Fortnum and Mason in London. The simple toilets are full. The roofs have holes. There is child labour. Pesticides poison the people. And many children are starving.

But people knew this already. There have been many reports eg. In 2014, the Guardian reported on ‘Assam’s modern slaves’. They said the workers get very low pay, so they have to sell children. They become sex or domestic slaves.

Another report said the Assam plantations get money from the World Bank, but the working conditions there are not good enough for the standards of the World Bank, or of the law in India.

They said that one of the main reasons for this was that is it still based on colonial work systems. Workers get low pay and housing. The state does not get involved to check working and living conditions.

There was some hope that this could change. But in 2013, Oxfam and the Ethical Tea Partnership wrote a report. They said that workers on fair trade plantations do not get better pay than workers on plantations that are not fair trade (but they do get other benefits). The minimum wages for tea workers in Assam are ‘just above the World Bank poverty line…’ and only 40 per cent of the average pay in India.

If they do get benefits, these are often very bad quality. Trade unions have won important benefits for workers eg. equal pay for women. But it is difficult for them to get better conditions. Plantation workers in Munnar, Kerala, said that their trade union did not represent them because they were working too closely with management and political parties.

In the 19th century, local people did not want to work hard on the tea plantations for very low pay. So people came from poor areas or low castes, and the grandchildren of their grandchildren still work there now. In Kerala and Sri Lanka, the workers were Tamil. Sri Lankan companies wanted to bring slaves from Africa, but it cost too much to bring them. They thought about getting workers from China, but they thought the workers there wanted too much.

Plantations in West Bengal had workers from Nepal who were almost slaves. In Assam too, the workers were almost slaves. The very big plantations were a long way from anywhere. The workers could not leave. They had to stay in poverty, illiteracy and debt. The lucky ones had kind managers. The unlucky ones had to work very hard. They could not leave. And they got very little money.

Most plantation workers have lost contact with their homelands and language. But they are not accepted into the local area and culture. They often suffer violence and discrimination by the local population. They only know how to grow tea so they cannot get other work. So when plantations close because they have no money (this happened recently in West Bengal) they often stay even if they have no food at all.

In Kerala, tourism is growing, so people can earn more money. This means there are not so many people to work in the tea plantations. And not so many people in the world buy tea, so prices are going down. In September last year, the plantations did not make so much money, so they only paid half the annual bonus. So thousands of women went on strike. The strike continued for almost a month. This was bad for the tourism trade and spread to other plantations in Kerala eg. coffee and rubber. The group of women is called Pembilla Orumai (Unity of Women). They were also protesting against low wages, bad living conditions and unhealthy working conditions.

The government has to look at this now. Chief Minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, said that many governments have done nothing to help the workers there.

Many groups have not been successful: international banks, NGOs, trade unions, business social responsibility programmes, certification bodies and governments. Maybe these women can be? Maybe they can change the system that keeps tea plantation workers poor. Maybe they can be free and have the same rights as other agricultural workers?

Margaret Mead (author and anthropologist) said: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’

Let’s hope that she will be right here. We do not want another hundred years to pass with the same terrible living conditions.

Sabita Banerji comes from India and is now an economic justice campaigner in London. She worked in international development and fair trade volunteering for many years. And she now works for the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).