Interview - Shri J. John
Q. What has the evolution of the tea industry been like in India? How has it grown?
A. That is a long story that has a colonial and imperial origin. Tea was an instrument of succession of colonial power and imperialism from the very beginning. It started off with the opium war the British had with China, where they were using Indian opium to purchase tea from China and trade it in Europe- UK, especially Britain, and across the Atlantic in the Americas- the new colonies and Canada. It was traded initially, but then Chinese tea was becoming prohibitively expensive. It was around that time, during the British-Burmese war, that tea was accidently discovered in Assam. The British understood its potential, and began cultivation at an industrial scale. They destroyed huge areas of forests for this. There were a number of investors who brought in money for cultivation and transport to London where it would be auctioned off. This continued till India got her independence. So this began around the 1820s-1830s and continued on till 1947.
Then there was a major shift where Indian planters replaced the British planters, but continued with the same cultivation and industrial processes. The British way of tea cultivation not only destroyed large areas of forests, but also destroyed the indigenous way of cultivation. Also, workers were imported in very large numbers from Jharkhand, Orissa and Bihar to work. These were indentured workers, and deployed in tea gardens a family units. So the British mode of production and industrial relations continued. What changed was that some of the benefits provided to workers, like housing and water were converted into a right through the Plantation Labour Act 1951. But the overall situation has not changed. The tea industry has a history of enslavement of large number of workers and production of a commodity that paved the way for large-scale export and revenue generation for the British at that time.
Q. What is the most pressing labour rights issue in this sector?
A. The biggest problem is that wages are low. Even though workers are there for generations, they only get paid for the day’s work- not Sundays and holidays. There are many factors that go into this.
One reason for low wages is that minimum wages are pegged at 3 consumption units- one for worker, one for his wife, and half each for two children. This is fixed on the assumption that worker wages must satisfy one adult dependent and children. But this does not happen in the tea garden where only 1.5 consumption units is given, under the assumption that both husband and wife are working on the plantation. The British used to ensure that they live as a family unit so workers are continuously reproduced. So this wage is half of what Indian adult workers would get elsewhere.
Second, minimum wage exists only where negotiated wages do not exist. But here there are regular negotiations with unions and employers. The wages are very low because it is still at 1.5 consumption units, even after independence.
Third, employers claim that workers are given housing, firewood, and education, so these social costs met by plantation are cited to claim that total wages are actually high.
Finally, regular work is reducing, and temporary or casual labour employment is increasing. These workers do not get any additional benefits like PF, housing, etc., so wages remain low. They are not employees of the plantation.
Strikes happen very often. There was one that happened earlier this year. The Assam government said they will increase the minimum wage, but the plantations have challenged this. This has not been fully resolved yet.
Q. Who has the authority to remedy this problem?
A. Only the state government can notify minimum wages. However, primary responsibility lies with plantation management, because it is a negotiated wage, so they must increase wages.
Q. Low tea price is often cited as a reason for low wages. Do you think this is true?
A. Wages are fixed according to tea price, which is the price determined at the auction stage. Auctions should theoretically involve competitive bidding, with the highest price winning. However, there are allegations that the big players involved in this collaborate to ensure the price does not increase above a certain level. As a result, the wages do not increase either. There are arguments for and against having wages tied to auction prices.
Q. What is the state of housing provided to the workers, and is there adequate access to doctors or hospitals?
A. Very poor. The houses are not really pucca. They are very small, so the worker themselves try to extend it as their families expand. Right to housing is not the same as right to land, which is an important right for these workers.
Plantation workers are supposed to be provided with healthcare through garden hospitals. However, these are in very bad conditions, without necessary facilities, and the workers are in poor health. Malnourishment is common.
Q. Over the past few years, there have been several investigations that have revealed the terrible conditions in which tea workers are living. How have the employers responded? Do you think the exposure has helped in improving living conditions?
A. These are sustainability interventions or value chain interventions. These happen in many sectors. Plantations respond to pressure from civil society to eliminate the exploitation. There are big processes like Rainforest Alliance, which are supported by big brands and retailers. The purpose for what it started is getting turned upside down. These processes set standards and say they will do business only if certain minimum standards are met. However, it does not have much impact on the ground; they only add value to the brand through their sustainability certificate.
Q. There have been reports of forced labour and slave labour in the tea industry in India. From your experiences, how pervasive is this problem?
A. Not slave labour, but extreme exploitation and human rights violations are rampant, as well as labour rights violations. There are also many instances of girls being forced to leave plantations under the guise of work in other cities. This is usually either domestic work, or forced prostitution. It has been taking place for the last decade or so.
Q. To what extent does child labour exist in this industry?
A. After independence, child labour has reduced. As per the Plantation Labour Act, children above 14 years could work. This was changed after the Child Labour Act, but even under that, children above 15 years are allowed to work in non-hazardous industry.
Q. There have been many reports of starvation deaths. What is the cause of this?
A. A few years ago, in the early 2000s, there was a crisis in tea industry and many tea plantations were abandoned or closed. Closure is legal closure, as per the Companies Act. Abandonment is when the management literally just leaves the estate. When they do, facilities get turned off, and thousands of workers and their families are left with nothing. They are stuck with no food or water. Starvation deaths are very common in such situations, and I have investigated these myself.
Q. What about Small Tea Growers? What are the big issues that they are facing?
A. There has been a structural change in the tea industry. Within two decades, the tea produced by Small Tea Growers has increased from 2% of the total tea production to 50%. Large companies have shut down their estates, and instead just purchase tea directly at the auction stage. Tea production shifted from plantations to small tea growers. As a result, they do not need to employ workers, or provide them with facilities, or worry about crop damage. Small farmers hire casual labour as need arises, but this is at a much smaller scale. After all, these are small farmers, with around one acre of land, so they face many problems. For example, plucked leaves to be processed within 4 hours. Bought leaf factories have come up in response to this, which are different from estate factories. But these are also far away, so leaf agents come to procure these from the farmers. They give lower prices, which is the biggest issue.
Crop damage is the other big issue. This is a result of changes in climate, which is leading to a climate less suitable for growing tea. Violent attacks of rain, drought, frost, pest attacks are all conditions that lead to loss of crops. Farmers are left with nothing in such situations. The government will have to help small farmers.
Q. How do Trade Unions see the problems of workers engaged in STGs?
A. In West Bengal and Kerala, there are unions for small farmers, but otherwise it is very difficult to organize the small farmers, so unions do not get too involved. Additionally, it is difficult to work on rights of workers, because STGs only employ them as casual labour for a few days, so they are not in a position to improve their living conditions. The government needs to set a minimum wage and social security benefits for the workers.
Q. What authority does the Tea Board have? What exactly is its function?
A. Tea Board controls tea from its seed to marketing. No cultivation, plucking, processing, marketing, etc. can happen without their approval. It is a regulating body. They also have some promotions in the form of welfare programs for workers, e.g. scholarships. However, they are not involved in wage determination or living conditions, etc.
Q. How do tea industries of other countries compare to that of India’s? Are there any practices that India can adopt to help with the issues faced here?
Other countries are facing similar issues, as the tea industries are a creation of imperialism there too- Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Africa. 70% of the global tea is grown by STGs- in Sri Lanka it is 80-90% because of government encouragement. We have already adopted certain practices from abroad, like the price sharing formula used by tea board was adopted from Sri Lanka.
Q. What is the relevance of International tea day, and what message would you like to give for ITD 2018?
A. Tea Day is a day to remember and recognize the people who produce tea- their humanity and rights, to think of the workers and small producers. Many people are now observing the day just to celebrate the drink. This is fine, but we should not forget the people who produce it.
We have to ensure that tea workers are getting need-based minimum wages at the very least. They must be recognized, by giving them a right to land and housing, without which there is a feeling of alienation among the workers. For the farmers, remunerative price is essential. There need to be worker-centric and farmer-centric interventions to defend their rights.