NEW DELHI, Oct 10 - In an indictment of the Assam government’s initiative towards the welfare of tea workers, a study on the working and living conditions of plantation workers found crumbling houses with no toilets, poor wages, lack of quality health and education entitlements.
The new research, commissioned by Oxfam India and undertaken by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), however, found that the State government’s commitment to increase the minimum wages of tea plantation workers to Rs 351 met with hurdles of financial viability of the sector.
The study report ‘Addressing The Human Cost of Assam Tea’ included in-depth interviews with 510 plantation workers from 50 tea estates in the State to ascertain the main challenges faced by them.
The research showed that the relentless squeeze by supermarkets and brands on the share of the end consumer price for tea makes poverty and hardship for workers in Assam more likely. But, combined with rising costs and the impacts of the climate crisis, it is also contributing to a severe economic crisis for the entire Indian tea industry.
The research also found that despite working for over 13 hours a day, tea workers earn between Rs 137 and Rs 167. It found that tea brands and supermarkets typically capture over two-thirds of the price paid by consumers for Assam tea in India – with just 7 per cent remaining for workers in tea estates.
The study discovered that many women tea-leaf pluckers regularly clock up 13 hours of backbreaking work a day receiving between Rs 110 and Rs 130 per day. This wage is so low that half the workers interviewed, receive ‘Below Poverty Line’ ration cards from the government.
Indian tea estates are legally obliged under the Plantation Labour Act to provide decent working condition, besides housing, healthcare and education facilities. The research found that the condition of housing and sanitation is very poor in majority of tea estates with dilapidated or nonexistent facilities. Around 45 per cent of workers interviewed reported that they were suffering from water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, typhoid and jaundice, among others.
Globally, supermarkets are taking an ever-increasing share of the price paid by shoppers – much of which is channelled to already wealthy shareholders and owners. In Germany and the United States, supermarkets capture 87 per cent and 76 per cent of the price of a pack of black tea respectively, with just 1 percent accruing to workers on tea estates.
A 200-gm packet of branded Assam tea is sold in India for around Rs 70. Of this, less than Rs 5 is left for workers (using plucking costs as a proxy indicator), while tea brands and supermarkets retain around Rs 40. Likewise, tea workers receive just 2 cents from a packet of Assam black tea that sells for 75 cents in the Netherlands, whereas just 14 cents per pack would be enough to ensure tea workers were paid a living wage.
“We welcome the attempts of the government to increase the wages of tea plantation workers and the upcoming Occupational Health and Safety Bill. Both have the potential to address the systemic injustice faced by the tea workers in Assam,” Oxfam India CEO Amitabh Behar said.
“However, our research points to the fact that the tea plantation workers and their families are having a very vulnerable existence. The wages that they earn are very low and their working and living conditions call for an urgent response,” he said.
The Indian tea sector continues to be the largest private sector employer but poor implementation of labour laws is putting at risk the viability of the tea industry as a whole. The problems highlighted in the new report are not exclusive to Assam – they are endemic and prevalent in other supply chains also. But, they are particularly acute in Assam, the report noted.