While India takes pride in hosting the single largest tea producing region in the world, the workers toiling in Assam’s tea plantations have been handed the worst deal in the country. With wages as low as Rs 137 the Assam tea plantation workers are paid way below the minimum wage of agricultural workers. Tea workers in the neighbouring West Bengal share the same tragic fate. The two states together hosts the core of India’s tea industry with 11 lakh workers.
An industry, which is highly capitalistic in character, owing to the colonial times when British private businesses with the extended involvement of British capital expanded the industry from the vantage point of international marketing and financial activities, and still continuing in formats no different in kind post-independence, bifurcates the wages partly in cash and partly in kind. Even if there has been a numerical increase in wages post-independence for the plantation workers, qualitatively, this hasn’t had any substantial improvement, thanks to minute upward fluctuations in real wages. What this has amounted to is a continuation of feudal relations of production and a highly structured organization of production in its pre-marketing phases, and thus expropriating super-profits on the basis of semi-feudal, extra-economic coercion and exploitation.
The majority of the workers in tea plantations suffer from anemia and tuberculosis. Malaria is bone-chillingly rampant. There are tea gardens in Assam where at least one in every family is suffering from tuberculosis. And the children and women are the worst affected. The infant mortality rate is very high, far above the state and national averages.
Around one-third of the workforce is denied housing facilities. Every year, hundreds of people in the plantations die from water-borne diseases like gastro-enteritis and cholera. Most of the plantations have no potable drinking water facilities and drainage systems.
Women who form the major section of temporary labor force are the most deprived and exploited. They are subjected to long working hours and heavy workload. Even pregnant women are not spared from activities like deep hoeing. The maternal mortality ratio is also reported to be abnormally high.
The literacy rate among the tea workers and their families is only 20 percent. In Assam, they do not enjoy any special status, as their brethren elsewhere do. They are merely referred to as the tea labour and ex-tea labour community. The children cannot avail of any reservation facility in educational institutions, the youth do not enjoy any opportunity in the employment circuit. Most of the time, education begins and ends with lower primary schools housed within the gardens themselves. In other words, being coerced into plantation labour at the cost of continuing education is nothing uncommon. After getting sucked into the plantation, this young labour force, due to lack of skilled exposure and an almost complete absence of alternative employment opportunity only add credence to the epitome of modern-day bonded labour: forced and unfree in nature.
The ethnicity of the tea workforce is probably one reason why nobody cares. A significant percentage of the tea plantation workers of Assam and West Bengal are tribals, fourth generation immigrants of indentured migrants from the Central and South-Central Indian tribal heartland.
What the law says?
The Plantation Labour Act (PLA), 1951 provides for the welfare of plantation labour and regulates the conditions of work in plantations.
In the case of the tea plantations, the responsibility for welfare measures has been given to their management. While the Government of India imposed this responsibility on them through the Plantation Labour Act of 1951 (PLA), the Government of Assam gave it a concrete shape in the Assam Plantation Labour Rules, 1956.
On Working Hours:
The Plantation Labour Act provides that no adult worker and adolescent or child shall be employed for more than 48 hours and 27 hours respectively a week, and every worker is entitled for a day of rest in every period of 7 days.
The Assam Plantation Labour provided for certain welfare measures for the workers and imposed restrictions on the working hours. They are to be 54 (per week) for adults and 44 (per week) for non-adults.
On Health and Hygiene:
As per Assam Plantation Labour Rules the employers are also to provide adequate drinking water, latrines and urinals separately for men and women for every 50 acres of land under cultivation with proper maintenance of drinking water and sanitation system.
The employer is also to provide a garden hospital for the estates with more than 500 workers or have a lien of 15 beds for every 1,000 workers in a neighbouring hospital within a distance of five kilometres. The gardens are also to have a group hospital in a sub area considered central for the people and provide transport to the patients. Along with the canteen facility a well-furnished and adequately lit, well-ventilated crèche for children below 2 is to be provided in gardens with more than 50 women workers.
Specific to the PLA is the clause on educational facilities. If the number of children in the 6-12 age group exceeds 25 the employer should provide and maintain at least a primary school for imparting primary education to them. The school should have facilities such as a building in accordance with the guidelines and standard plans of the Education Department. If the garden does not maintain a school because a public school is situated within a mile from the garden then the employer is to pay a cess or tax for the children’s primary education.
On Social Security:
Social welfare and security benefits under PLA including pension, insurance, and maternity benefits do not exist.
Where is the Implementation and What happened to the Unions?
The tea plantation industry is amongst the largest organized industry in India, where the workers are unionized. In West Bengal, there are up north of 30 unions, whereas in Assam, the mantle of workers’ representation over the last five decades has been invested with the Assam Cha Mazdoor Sangh (ACMS). ACMS happens to be the only registered union, even though some others have central trade unions affiliations.
Despite strong unionization, the issue of PLA implementation is weak with not a single plantation boasting of total implementation.
The lack of implementation of provisions under PLA further expands the dominions of tea industry associations, which goes onto maneuver wage agreements. With hardly any promotional avenues opening up for a large majority of unskilled workers, across different age groups and experiences these receive same wages and are classified as daily wage workers. The last few decades of wage agreements show that the tea employers have not conceded any major demand of the trade unions. The tea associations have also not agreed to the variable Dearness Allowance.
Nearly 40 per cent of the workers in the tea plantations of West Bengal and Assam are temporary and casual workers, ruling them out of the ambit of PLA. That the tea industry is reaping all the benefits without investing a unit currency on a large section of its workforce is a direct consequent of the above fact.
The agreements in West Bengal are tripartite in that the union, tea industry association and the government work out the agreement, whereas bipartite in Assam where the government is not a party. The long-term understanding with the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) affiliated ACMS has given the Assam employers a clear domination and stranglehold over the industry. Officially, there is no labour unrest, industrial relations remain generally peaceful and ACMS, understandably, ‘co-operates with the industry’.
In West Bengal, however, any demand by the workers and the unions, termed unfair by the industry, is either flatly rejected, or is repeatedly discussed by the tea industry in a series of consultations, a delaying tactic mainly, until the unions are fed up and ask the government to intervene. Even then, there is a lot of resentment amongst the workers, but the very threat to their survival forces them to keep quiet and accept the verdict.
For a tea plantation worker, whose forefathers were indentured immigrants, and were born and brought up inside the tea gardens, dismissal means not only the loss of livelihood but a threat to their general existence. It is therefore very evident that even with complete unionization, positive interventions on behalf of the workers are confined to the micro-scale and any extrapolation to the macro-scale doesn’t really help beat seclusion and isolation. But, what is really ironic is that these unions have remained workers’ only link to the outside world, albeit in a manner that hasn’t concretely contributed to their cause.
The trade unions in the tea industry also operate under the same hierarchical and organizational setup master-minded and practiced by the planters right from the colonial days. Beyond a point, logic says that they will never be able to confront the tea industry to struggle for the betterment and uplift of the tea workers.
The trade unions have thus miles to go, starting foremost with the politics of architecture: to revamp organizational change and hierarchies in favour of workers to be able to survive and discharge responsibilities towards the tea plantation workers.