Assam Tea Labour Rights Violation

  • On 10th October, Oxfam India released a report titled - Addressing the Human Cost of Assam Tea, highlighting the issues of violation of labour rights in the tea estates of Assam.
  • The report was published along with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

Key Highlights of the Report

Low Wages

  • Labours of Assam tea estate regularly clock up 13 hours of backbreaking work a day receiving between Rs 110 and Rs 130 a day. This wage is so low that most labours receive ‘Below Poverty Line’ ration cards from the government;

Unavailability of Basic Facilities

  • Indian tea estates are legally obliged under the Plantation Labour Act (1951)to provide decent working conditions, housing, healthcare and education.
  • But the existing condition of housing and sanitation is very poor with dilapidated or non-existent facilities.
  • Absence of basic facilities gave rise to various other problems like water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, typhoid and jaundice.

Awful Condition of Women Labours

  • It is predominantly women who carry out the labour-intensive job of harvesting tea and end up being concentrated in these low-paid jobs. Despite their large numbers, they remain under-represented in trade unions.
  • Inaccessible toilets, inadequate maternal and childcare facilities, inadequate maternity benefits and domestic violence are other major issues being faced by women labours.

Exploitation by Supermarket Brands

  • The report attributed the condition of plantation workers to the relentless squeeze by supermarkets and brands on the share of the end-consumer price for tea. They typically capture over two thirds of the price paid by consumers for Assam tea in India – with just 7% remaining for workers on tea estates.
  • For ex. A 200 gms. packet of branded Assam tea is sold in India for Rs. 68. 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.

Plantation Labor Act (PLA), 1951

  • It provides for the welfare of plantation labour and regulates the conditions of work in plantations.
  • It applies to all the plantation workers whose monthly wages does not exceed Rs. 750/- per month.
  • It provides that no adult worker and adolescent or child shall be employed for more than 48 hours and 27 hours respectively a week, and every worker is entitled for a day of rest in every period of 7 days.
  • However, the Government of India is planning to subsume the PLA in the Labour Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Bill, 2019.

 Constitutional Provisions

  • Labour is a subject in the Concurrent List where both the Central and State Governments are competent to enact legislation subject to certain matters being reserved for the Centre.
  • Article 39 specifically requires the State to direct its policy towards securing equal right of men and women to adequate means of livelihood as well as equal pay for equal work for both men and women.
  • Article 43 refers to a living wage and not minimum wage. The concept of living wage includes in addition to the bare necessities of life, such as food, shelter and clothing, provisions for education of children and insurance etc.

Assam

Capital: Dispur

  • It is bounded to the north by the kingdom of Bhutan and the state of Arunachal Pradesh, to the east by the states of Nagaland and Manipur, to the south by the states of Mizoram and Tripura, and to the west by Bangladesh and the states of Meghalaya and West Bengal.
  • It get full statehood on 26 January 1950.
  • Assam has conserved the one-horned Indian rhinoceros from near extinction, along with the wild water buffalo, pygmy hog, tiger and various species of Asiatic birds, and provides one of the last wild habitats for the Asian elephant.

Significance

  • Highlighting Government’s Effort: The report is significant in highlighting the Assam government’s commitment to increasing the minimum wages of tea plantation workers to Rs 351 met with hurdles of financial viability in the sector.
  • Economic Crisis: The over exploitation by tea brands and supermarkets, combined with rising costs and the impacts of the climate crisis, is contributing to a severe economic crisis for the entire Indian tea industry.

Issues in Assam Tea Industry

Shutdowns of Tea Plantations

  • A considerable number of tea gardens has gone sick due to lack of infrastructure, modernization and efficient management.

Less Production of Tea

  • There are multiple problems being faced by the tea industry such as finance crisis, power problems, labour problems, poor labour schemes, increased revenue tax for tea gardens, increased pollution fee, less transport subsidy etc.,  have altogether put the tea industry in Assam in a hopeless situation, resulting in low production of tea leaves and tea.

Decline in Tea price

  • Due to various causes, the auction price of the tea has seen a steady decline over the years.All the profits from the tea gardens were siphoned off and there was no real or proper reinvestment in improving quality of tea.

Less Availability of Labours

  • Due to low wages and hardship of work, it is tough to find labours, beside the natives and tea tribes who are solely dependent on the tea industry for their daily income and livelihood.

Lack Proper Storage

  • The problem of storing premium quality tea has always been there. Due to delay in transportation and lack of storage facilities, the processed tea gains moisture from the atmosphere and deteriorates in quality.

Climatic Factors

  • Unfavourable climatic conditions for tea plantations owing to scanty or very heavy rainfall have badly affected the tea industry.

Pest Problem

  • Pest problem is another major issue. Bacterial black spotdisease hasbadly  affected many plantations in Assam tea estates.

Others Issues

  • Lack of proper communication for export, limited use of scientific tool or mechanisms, insufficient capital to invest, decline the interest on the agricultural field among the youth, growth of industries, etc. are also seen as the major obstacles to the growth of tea industry.

Suggestive Measures

  • Increasing global demand for Assam tea has raised the hopes of the industry.
  • Venturing into new markets in the global market to regain its demand.
  • Creating favorable export condition and domestic market promotion can also benefit the industry.
  • Improved supply chain and storage management will enhance shelf life.
  • Various management programs should be initiated by the industry as well as by the government to develop the capabilities of the tea executives.

Way Forward

  • The upcoming Occupational Health and Safety Bill, which would help the struggling Assam tea industry be viable and at the same time ensure fair living wages and decent working and living conditions for tea plantation workers and their families.
  • Supermarkets, brands and consumer come together to support the Assam government’s move to provide living wages to workers and to ensuring more of the price paid by the consumers trickle down to them.
  • Tea brands need to improve their transparency and accountability, in line with India’s National Guidelines on Responsible Business Conduct framework. They must inform consumers about where their tea comes from and how much is paid for it at each stage of the supply chain. It is also important that Indian consumers continue enjoying their cup of tea and at the same time demand fair living wages for workers.

Source : Civil Services Chronicle Online, October, 2019