Assam and Darjeeling tea are two of the most well-known teas produced in India. Assam and West Bengal are the regions that produce at least 70 percent of India’s tea. They also have one of the most prominent poverty rates among tea workers. The Assam region, for example, has a high maternal death rate is double the national average with 404 mothers dying during childbirth per 100,000 live births. Experts claim that this high maternal mortality rate is due to poverty, malnutrition, lack of sanitation and a lack of healthcare facilities.
Human Rights in India’s Past
Human rights violations in the Indian tea industry persists to this day. The root of poverty and rights violations for Indian tea workers comes from India’s colonial history. During the British colonization of India, the British officially introduced tea cultivation to the country. Assam province and Darjeeling Mountain regions were the earliest tea planting sites. During this time, the British plantations employed the indigenous Adivasi people. Many Adivasi women were relocated to work as indentured labor in what the British called the “tea gardens.” Historical records show that working conditions in these tea gardens were usually abysmal.
The post-independence Indian government took some measures in addressing the plight of tea plantation workers. However, laws such as the Plantation Labour Act of 1951 further entrenched the colonial plantation system. The Act entrusted the plantation owners to provide education, healthcare, sanitation and employment for their workers. This left these families in further danger of human rights violations in the Indian tea industry.
Human Rights in India’s Present
Even today, many tea pickers in India’s tea plantations are the descendants of these early Adivasi workers. These workers earn the poverty wage of about $2 a day. This low wage not only limits these families’ access to food and medical care but it also forces these families to rely on money lenders. This further plunges the family to large debt and it continues the cycle of poverty for the following generations.
Many Adivasi families still live on the grounds owned by the tea plantation owners. The grounds and the house they live in belong to whoever is managing the tea plantation at the time. Both their lodging and employment are in constant jeopardy whenever there is a management change. As a result, many tea plantation workers have at least one member of their household work for the plantation in order to hold on to their place of lodging and income.
Exposing Human Rights Violations
In a 2016 BBC expose, reporters discovered the deplorable living conditions for the tea pickers in one of the plantations in the Assam province. The reporters claimed that the tea produced in this region is supplied to companies such as Lipton, Harrods and Yorkshire Tea. Interviewed workers lived in ill-repaired housings with no working toilets and poorly maintained sanitation pipes.
Furthermore, the reporters found children working as tea pickers. According to the U.N.’s international law, no children under the age of 15 are allowed to work. Because of the poor living conditions, malnutrition and poor sanitation that these children are exposed to on a daily basis, these children are in constant danger of fatal illnesses. Fortunately, there are many who are working to fight and improve human rights violations in the Indian tea industry.
Fighting Human Rights Violations
The International Finance Corporation (IFC) interviewed many workers in an investigation for the World Bank. These workers claimed that they were “risking harassment and losing their jobs” for speaking out against their employers. On top of this, many companies deny the tea pickers’ claims of inhumane conditions at tea plantations. However, Indian tea workers are coming together to assert their rights.
In 2012, for example, tea pickers in West Bengal launched a strike against their employer. After one of the workers, who was seven and a half months pregnant, was denied medical treatment, the workers went on strike. With the support of the UIF (International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations), these women workers were able to secure maternity rights, improved housing and school transportation for their children.
The Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) is also partnering with tea producers and consumers to improve human rights violations in the Indian tea industry. ETP’s Community Empowerment Programme has been working with communities to improve conditions for workers. It established Community Development Forums (CDF) to encourage local tea workers in Assam province to deliver their own action plans to tackle the challenges they face. In fact, CDFs have helped more than 1,200 access important identity documents that are needed to open bank accounts. It has helped more than 800 homes to receive government subsidies for power.
Reports of the human rights violations in the Indian tea industry paint a bleak picture. The deplorable conditions in which workers live are more than enough to put the tea drinkers in a precarious position regarding their favorite beverage. The heartening news about the situation, however, is that many Indian tea pickers are banding together to assert their rights. With the help of the international community and NGOs, a brighter future awaits the Indian tea workers.
– YongJin Yi