Despite Unionisation, Why Are Tea Workers Exploited?

Profits made by large tea corporations continue to increase at the expense of tea workers who are paid unfairly, and whose access to quality education, water, and other basic services is severely curtailed.


The practice of drinking tea is said to transcend India’s regional, religious, caste, class and gender differences. According to government statistics, in 2007, India was the second-largest producer of tea and was the highest consumer of tea in the world.

Despite its popularity and its veritable presence in Indian households, the conditions under which tea is produced are not adequately discussed. This reading list details the Indian tea industry’s history, the stratification of labour (along gender and caste lines), the role of labour unions, and the industry’s potential for transformation for greater equity. 

Growth of the Tea Industry
Rana Pratap Behal writes that the tea industry in Assam valley grew at a rapid pace toward the end of the 19th century in terms of output, land usage, as well as labour force, developing into a monopolistic structure. 

By the end of the nineteenth century the tea planters had become a highly organised and powerful interest group (represented by the Indian Tea Association and its branches in Assam and North Bengal) within the monopolistic structure of the Calcutta managing agency system. This monopolistic control remained operative till the forties: as much as 89% of the area under tea cultivation in the Assam Valley was still managed by the Calcutta managing agency houses in 1942.

“Abundance” of Land, Shortage of Labourers 
Virginus Xaxa observes that tea plantations in India are similar to plantations around the world since they are organised for the production of exports.  Given that Britain and other European countries, towards the end of the 18th century, had a high consumption of tea, there was a ready market for producers. Although the British wanted to invest in the industry and land was “easily forthcoming,” hiring labourers remained a challenge.

The regions in which tea plantations were introduced in India had very scanty population and hence could not satisfy the demand for labour. Further, the local labour force was unwilling to work, as the plantations were in the interiors, wages were low and working and living conditions deplorable. Hence, an organised system of recruitment of labour from outside the region was put in place, which had an active support of the colonial government. Thus, as in other parts of the world, in India too, labour, the bulk of which was indentured labour, was brought from outside the region through an organised system of recruitment. In the case of eastern India (West Bengal and Assam), labour initially came from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, the regions from where labour for overseas was being recruited.

Family-based Recruitment 
Kanchan Sarkar and Sharit K Bhowmik identify that since the tea industry is labour-intensive, paying labourers less is central to increasing profits for the estate managers, owners and tea companies. 

… employment of indentured or slave labour ensured that the employers could hold a captive labour force which was bound to work on whatever wages were offered. As a result, almost the entire labour force in the tea plantations in West Bengal comprises immigrants and their descendents. 

Tea industrialists encouraged entire families to migrate, rather than individuals, and permanently settle in the area close to plantations (particularly in the industry’s early stages). 

This served two purposes. First, the planters wanted cheap labour who would be permanently settled in the plantations. This could be achieved by encouraging families to migrate rather than individuals. The entire family—males, females and children—worked on the plantation at wages determined by the planters. Second, family migration ensured that labour could be reproduced which in turn would ease the problem of further recruitment in the future. 

The migration of entire families is important, given that the tea industry employs children.

Stratification of Labour 
Sujata Gothoskar notes that the tea industry employs over 12 lakh permanent workers and about the same number of casual and seasonal workers. Gothoskar categorises employees of tea plantations into four categories: management, staff, sub staff and workers. Women, a majority of whom are Adivasi and Dalit, comprise of over 50% of the workforce, and in some roles, such as tea plucking, account for over 80% of the workforce. 

The “field workers” are engaged in plucking and activities related to the maintenance of the plantation and the bushes. These include hoeing, weeding, pruning, drainage, spraying of pesticides and insecticides, etc. The most difficult and hazardous work, involving carrying very heavy loads, is performed by women workers. Women carry more than 40 kilograms of green leaf on their backs every day for years since they are very young, and later whether they are pregnant or old. Over 90% of the tea workers are either scheduled tribes or scheduled castes—the lowest in the caste, ethnicity, class and resource hierarchy. Most of the families of the workers have been forcibly or fraudulently brought to the tea gardens several generations ago. The work of tea workers is arduous in addition to being low paid and insecure ... Injuries are common, as are respiratory and water-borne diseases. There is often exposure to pesticides and insecticides, which the International Labour Organisation (ILO) cites as one of the major health and safety hazards tea workers face.

Importantly, Gothoskar notes that large tea companies such as Tata Tea, Hindustan Unilever and McLeod Russel continue to increase their revenue and profits while not doing enough to ensure that tea workers and producers are paid and treated fairly.

Failure of Unions
Virginius Xaxa argues that there are multiple reasons why  starkly unequal wage structures have persisted. He notes three reasons that curtail the ability of workers to mobilise for better wages: “the geographical isolation of the tea plantations, extreme backwardness of the areas surrounding the plantations that do not provide any alternative employment, lack of educational facilities.” He adds,

Often, workers’ demand for just increase in wage is countered and threatened by cutting down on temporary workers by the employers. Since the temporary workers are from the families of permanent workers, any reduction in the labour force would invariably lead to reduction in the family income. The workers have thus been caught in a vicious circle of working for low wages in the plantation system. 

Xaxa also identifies that when the ownership and management of tea estates was transferred from the British to Indians, unions continued the practice of violating aspects of the Plantation Labour Act, 1951 largely because leadership of unions was rarely given to people from the same social background as plantation workers. 

[T]he members of the management … often happened to be from the same ethnic and linguistic communities of the trade union leadership … There was thus a wedge between the plantation workers and those in the union leadership. The leadership from the workers could not grow due to illiteracy among the workers, which as observed earlier was hardly addressed seriously. Often, trade union leaders with some exception were not free from prejudices and stereotypes that the larger Indian population had with respect to tribal communities. They looked down upon them as inferior, backward and wages paid to them as inadequate for their standard and status.

Indeed, Behal also noticed that an important characteristic of the structured employer–labour relations was racial discrimination. 

This attitude was akin to that of the white masters towards their black slave labour in the antebellum era in southern USA. The British tea planters established an omnipotent, super authority over their labour force within what has been termed as a 'paternalistic’ framework. It was assumed that these 'primitive' and 'ignorant’ labourers were conservative by nature, suspicious of change, unambitious, prone to violence, easily excitable and unresponsive to incentives. 

Women’s Participation in Trade Unions
Based on fieldwork in three tea plantations in northern West Bengal in 1992, Kanchan Sarkar and Sharit K Bhowmik investigate why women’s participation is low in trade union related duties and decisions. 

Our findings showed that only 17 of the women, representing only 11 per cent of the sample, regularly attended union meetings and participated in the other activities. Around 65 per cent of them were occasional participants and the rest never took part. When negotiations or conciliatory proceedings were held, the local union leader was accompanied by a group of workers of the plantation. The women hardly ever took part in these negotiations. Of the 17 regular participants in union activities only five had attended these meetings. All of them told us that they merely observed the proceedings and had never given their opinions.

Sarkar and Bhowmik argue that one of the primary reasons for the union’s inadequacy in ensuring women have executive roles and appropriate representation is their literacy level. 

As the plantations were usually isolated and communications were not very good, the only source of education for most of the workers' children was the primary school in the plantation. These schools were badly maintained in most of the plantations. They did not have adequate rooms or teachers. Moreover …  the lower literacy levels of the women was caused by the additional burden of taking care of the needs of the family. In many cases the girls did not go to school or had to drop out because they had to take care of the younger children. This again was due to another violation of the Plantation Labour Act. The Act provides for creches in all plantations employing 30 or more women but this was hardly enforced. With the result, younger girls; had little time for school before they started working on the plantation or elsewhere in the vicinity. 

Child Trafficking in Distressed Tea Plantations 
Based on field research in 2012 in 14 tea estates in North Bengal, Sudip Chakraborty examines the circumstances under which children are trafficked (through force, coercion or deception). Chakraborty found that local and global economic shocks severely affect the livelihood prospects of tea workers, particularly seasonal and casual workers. This was evident from a pattern of starvation-induced deaths and high rates of trafficking of children, a majority of whom are girls, in tea gardens that were abandoned.  

The incidence of trafficking has been higher in tea gardens with records of closure and sporadic sickness, while those that did not undergo closure or sickness witnessed a comparatively lower rate of trafficking. Tea gardens that fell sick off and on witnessed a trafficking rate of 93.34% followed by closed gardens where the rate was 70.97%. It was 40% for gardens which operated continuously without a break. The family’s economic condition was thus found to be a factor. 

A Case for Restructuring
Xaxa offers many suggestions to transform the present system. For example, he suggests that villages and hamlets must be removed from the control of the tea estate managers and redistributed to either the workers’ families or a collective that owns titles of the land. 

The plantation villages can be governed in the same way as a village in a rural setting is governed. Such an arrangement will open up space for the effective extension of the government programmes and schemes in plantation villages as well as provide the space for self governance among the workers. In addition, the existing land and buildings that house hospitals, schools and other related facilities for plantation workers, along with some additional wasteland for future development work, could be vested in the state. 

A more concerted effort by the state to provide welfare services and to enforce the Plantation Labour Act and other labour laws can safeguard the rights of plantation workers. Importantly, by making the state accountable for providing basic services and safeguarding rights—rather than estates (with their profit-oriented concerns)— a lasting restructuring of the decades-old plantation system can be achieved.  


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