DIBRUGARH, Feb 7 - The World Bank’s independent watchdog, the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) has released a monitoring report, which found out that the International Finance Corporation (a member of the World Bank Group) and Tata Group plantations have failed to deliver on commitments to address serious health and safety concerns facing the 155,000 people that live and work on tea plantations it owns in India’s North East, a press communiqué said.
Tea workers across Assam, including on the World Bank’s plantations, earn a daily cash wage of only Rs 167 and rely on their employers for housing, healthcare, education, and other basic services.
Stephen Ekka, Director of PAJHRA, a local organisation that filed a complaint to the CAO, has said that workers and their supporting organisations are counting on leadership from the World Bank and Tata Group to respond to the sustainability concerns found in the CAO’s monitoring report in a consultative manner. The workers of APPL must be central in the design and formulation of solutions, said Ekka.
It is pertinent to mention that in 2009, the World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), joined the Tata Group to create a worker-owned company called Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL). The rationale was to empower Adivasi (indigenous) tea workers through better conditions and share ownership. The Tata Group – which owns the Tetley brand – is the majority shareholder, owning 65 per cent of APPL, while the IFC owns a 16 per cent equity stake. Employees and tea workers own the remainder of the company. Both Tata and IFC have written commitments to protect the health and safety of communities, enshrined in the Tata Sustainability Policy and IFC Environmental and Social Performance Standards.
In November 2016, following a complaint about poor conditions by local organisations supporting tea workers in Assam, the CAO released an investigation, finding numerous violations, and that hazardous living conditions on the plantations contributed to workers’ susceptibility to disease. In response, the IFC and Tata committed in an Action Plan to working closely with APPL to improve housing, water supply, toilets, hospitals, and pesticide use, on an urgent basis, in close consultation with workers.
The CAO’s monitoring report released recently said that in the last two years, the IFC and Tata have failed to keep their word on their promises and has not brought APPL on track to achieve compliance with the IFC’s environmental and social requirements. The report found serious lapses in IFC’s supervision of APPL, including no evidence the IFC followed up with APPL in relation to a series of serious incidents of death and injury documented by the complainants on three APPL plantations in Assam in 2018. The CAO has warned that if noncompliance with IFC requirements persist, IFC, as a part owner of APPL, risks perpetuating a system of employment with well documented negative impacts on workers and their families.
Anirudha Nagar of Accountability Counsel, an organisation supporting the complainants, has said that investing resources and expertise in workers’ health and safety will increase worker productivity and move APPL towards profitability. “After consulting workers, the IFC and Tata should mobilise its vast financial, intellectual, and managerial resources to support APPL to implement an action plan,” he said in a statement.
“The IFC and Tata must make good on their promise to consult workers on the path forward through a truly independent third party,” said Wilfred Topno of PAD, one of the complainant organisations.
Jayshree Satpute of Nazdeek, another group supporting the complainants, has said that the IFC ought to use its convening power to initiate structural change in the Assam tea industry to address wage levels. She said that providing workers living wages is integral to lifting them from poverty.