India’s tea gardens: poor conditions persist

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Despite strict laws requiring the owners of tea plantations to ensure the health, safety and living conditions of tea workers, poor practices persist – and women are often the worst affected.

At 8.30am on 19 July, Moina Nayak, 24, was sweeping residual tea leaves from the floor of a tea factory in Assam, when her hair got caught in a crush, tear and curl (CTC) machine. The machine – which crushes, tears and cuts tea leaves – ripped the hair and skin from Moina’s scalp. Moina, one of three breadwinners – all daily wage earners – in a family of eight, had not been provided with any personal protective equipment, like a helmet, which might have mitigated her injuries.

As a temporary worker at Dibrugarh’s Lepetkata Tea Estate, owned by Luxmi Tea Company Private Ltd, Moina earned Rs 205 a day. However, as she was only employed for six months a year at the tea factory, she does not have access to benefits like a provident fund to provide a pension and social security payments if she is unable to work – for example, due to serious injury.

According to media reports, after the manager of the tea estate provided the family with money for Moina’s treatment, and also paid for an ambulance and other expenses, her family chose not to file a complaint to the police about the incident. Later, Moina’s employer paid her compensation of Rs 13.41 lakh.

According to Lakhindra Kurmi, district secretary for the Dibrugarh region at the Assam Tea Tribes Students Association (ATTSA), the incident occurred as a result of carelessness by the tea garden’s management.

Demanding a high-level investigation into the incident, Kurmi said: “Safety comes first, but there is none in the tea factory. The labour department has failed to verify the safety measures [at the factory]. The manager is responsible for the accident, in our opinion.”

iStock credit Bartosz Hadyniak

Women form backbone of the workforce
The tea industry is the second largest employer in India, employing over 3.5 million people. Women are the backbone of the workforce and more than 50 per cent of the labour force in the plantation estates is female. There is a commonly-held stereotype and belief that the ‘soft hands and naturally nimble fingers of women’ make them better-suited to tea leaf picking and plucking than men.

Plucking tea leaves is a labour-intensive, time-consuming affair.

However, traditionally women have been employed to do the plucking because they are seen as having greater dexterity for handling the leaves. Meanwhile, male workers are often assigned to other jobs at the plantations, such as removing weeds, spraying pesticides and applying fertilisers.

Plantations Labour Act (PLA), 1951
Tea plantation workers in India are covered by the Plantations Labour Act (PLA), 1951, which is designed to set and regulate minimum standards for their working and living conditions.
The Act sets out certain minimum standards for healthcare, suitable accommodation and educational facilities for the benefit of plantation workers. It also contains legal rules on working conditions, including maximum working hours, overtime payments, child labour prohibitions and controls, paid leave and sickness and maternity benefits.

ATTSA general secretary Dhiraj Gowala says that although the Factories Act, 1948 and the Plantations Labour Act, 1951 contain sufficient requirements to ensure a minimum standard of health, safety and housing conditions for tea garden workers, the laws are not complied with or enforced in many instances.

“The State Labour Welfare Department is the nodal agency for appointing factory and tea garden inspectors to see the proper implementation of the provisions of the two Acts,” said Gowala.

“The negligence of the Labour Welfare Department, tea garden management and owners of tea factories have posed a serious threat to the security of factory workers who have been meeting with serious accidents, one after another. The serious accident of Moina is indeed a hair-raising incident.”

Although the sprawling tea gardens of Assam are home to some of the most famed teas in the world, the living and working conditions of the plantation workers – especially women – are very poor, and wages are low.

Lack of basic housing facilities
The plantation workers usually live in houses with just one room, no sanitation and a lack of basic facilities like drinking water. There are no medical facilities available and many women develop health issues as a result of exposure to chemicals used in the plantation estates. Malnutrition has also been identified as a significant problem for women and children on the plantations.

The wages are so miserably low that workers’ families often go hungry. This April, 16 people died from eating wild mushrooms in Assam. The victims belonged to families of tea garden workers.

In Assam, deaths from mushroom poisoning are especially common in March and April when wild mushrooms dot the blue-green fields of the state’s tea gardens. And the victims are almost always the poorly paid workers who are employed in these estates.

Although plantation owners have a responsibility to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of their workers, a woman plantation worker pointed out that owners simply do not care.

“We lead stressful lives with no rest, and the fear of losing daily wage is always there,” said the worker, who did not wish to be named. “That is why most women generally delay seeking healthcare because the cost of being sick means losing a day’s wage for non-permanent workers and half-a-day’s wage for permanent workers.”

The absence of trade unions also means there is no one to lobby the management of the plantations to demand solutions to the problems faced by the women tea workers.

“Even if there are any trade unions, they are male-dominated [unions] who ignore the issues of women workers,” said the anonymous female worker.

The problem of trade unions failing to adequately lobby to protect female tea workers hit the media headlines back in 2015, when a collective of women labourers at the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations (KDHP) company in Munnar in Kerala spontaneously launched a protest demanding higher wages. The protest focused public attention on the gender-related disparities in the tea sector and delivered a jolt to the local male-dominated trade unions in the state of Kerala.  

The wage demands of the women workers were no different from the usual wage negotiations that trade unions engage in with management. However, the fact the demands were raised by a marginalised community of Dalit women workers, bound together by the common thread of misery, harsh work and living conditions, had wide-ranging impacts – including on tourism in the area. The women’s wage protests were eventually successful, even though the male-dominated trade unions carried out retaliatory actions against some of the women.  

The spontaneity of the women workers’ outburst shocked the state of Kerala. At its high point, the pempilai orumai (meaning ‘female unity’ in Tamil) protest saw around 5,000 female tea workers demanding higher wages and bonuses.

Lack of maternity rights and pay
The 2015 Munnar plantation strike brought the pathetic working and living conditions of tea workers – not just in Kerala but also in Tamil Nadu, Assam and Darjeeling – into the spotlight.

A study, Who will stand up for us? The social determinants of health of women tea plantation workers in India, published in the International Journal for Equity in Health found that while permanent women tea workers were entitled to three months’ paid maternity leave, non-permanent workers had to leave their jobs if they became pregnant as they did not qualify for maternity pay.

However, the report found that in many instances, even during maternity leave, permanent workers were not paid their full entitlement of wages and half of their daily wage was deducted.

The study also found that tea plucking did not stop even during the monsoon season and this posed particularly difficult working conditions due to lack of the lack of adequate shelter for taking lunch breaks and a risk of injuries due to wet and slippery roads.

The researchers also found that occupational hazards such as insect bites were common and due to the lack of safety gear for protection against insects – such as gloves and boots – women often protected themselves by using a locally prepared emollient made of mustard oil, lime and tobacco leaves, which they applied repeatedly.

Parliamentary committee demands action on tea plantations
Meanwhile, the Parliamentary standing committee on commerce, in its latest report on 15 June 2022, said an influx of “cheap tea” from Nepal, “abject” working and “inhuman” living conditions of tea labourers and the denial of “decent living wages” to workers are some of the factors that are having a negative impact on the tea industry’s growth.

Commenting on the socio-economic conditions of the tea workers, the committee said their “abject working and inhumane living conditions” are reminiscent of the “indentured [bonded] labour” introduced in colonial times by British planters.

The committee also warned that the “inadequacy and absence of political will” in implementing and enforcing the Plantations Labour Act, 1951 has led to a deterioration in the working standards of tea labourers.

To reverse the situation, the panel called on the central government to ensure that adequate welfare measures, health and housing benefits and decent working conditions are provided for labourers in the tea sector.

The committee added that the government should establish a database of plantation workers at the earliest possible opportunity so that welfare facilities can be provided to those who are entitled to them.

It also recommended the speedy implementation of the new Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 to ensure that suitable welfare benefits are provided and paid to the tea workers.

“Now that the parliamentary panel has raised the issues, hopefully the government will pay some attention to addressing them,” said Saman Pathak, leader of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and former Rajya Sabha MP.


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