West Bengal has witnessed, since January, nearly 100 starvation deaths in closed tea plantations. These deaths are a harrowing example of the ramifications of the devastating income inequality forced upon plantation workers in North-East India and West Bengal. Extreme poverty — fuelled by crippling low wages and social isolation — has led to rampant malnutrition and anaemia, often resulting in preventable deaths.
Assam accounts for 52% of India’s tea production and almost one-sixth of that of the world. Similar to West Bengal, colonial-era labour structures, faulty trade union practices and corporate greed are responsible for unjust wages, which are against both national labour laws and the Constitution.
In Assam, workers suffer the same exploitative conditions as those of their ancestors, forcibly brought to work in the gardens by the British in the 1860s. The current state of the plantations is nothing short of modern-day feudalism — taking the migrant population, placing it in social isolation and ensuring the people live in abject poverty with little to no access to education, health, food or an alternative livelihood. Plantation owners eliminate any opportunity for social mobility. Similar to feudal land shares, this oppressive social system is designed to establish workers’ dependence and entrap them and their children in an endless cycle of generational servitude, providing plantations with a perpetual source of cheap labour. This established dependence is what has ultimately led to starvation deaths in closed plantations of West Bengal. After years of earning wages barely enough to live on, workers have no savings to rely on after the gardens close down and are left to face unemployment.
Despite an expected industry turnover of Rs 33,000 crore by 2015, tea plantation workers earn the lowest wage of all organised sectors in India. In Assam, they earn Rs 94 per day — far below the state’s statutory minimum wage for unskilled labourers of Rs 169 per day. On top of this illegal wage, companies often deduct the cost of food ration, electricity and retirement benefits. Expenses related to housing repair, medical bills, and childcare are also borne by workers, despite the Plantation Labour Act, which mandates that plantation’s management must provide these services for free.
These types of injustice caught international attention in February on the heels of a damning report by Columbia University on the Amalgamated Plantations Private Ltd (APPL) gardens, controlled by the Tata group. The report called into question the World Bank’s investment of $7.8 million in some of the group’s tea plantations. In early 2013, three Assam-based NGOs representing the plantation workers filed a complaint to the World Bank’s Compliance Advisory Ombudsman (CAO), vocalising concerns regarding the living and working conditions on the plantations. The CAO in February 2013 found the complaint “eligible for assessment” and launched an investigation into the International Finance Corporation’s compliance with the World Bank standards and relevant national laws. The investigation is on.
The complaint has demonstrated the need for an urgent, structural change in the sector, starting with just wages. Activists groups in Assam, particularly the All Adivasi Student Association of Assam (AASAA), are mobilising workers to demand higher wages ahead of the next round of wage negotiations set for Fall 2014. Already, workers have been interrogated and intimidated by plantation managements for voicing their complaints. Yet, they are holding their own in fighting for the rights they are fundamentally entitled to.
Joseph Wheeler is a communications strategist and Francesca Feruglio is an LLB student at Nanded University, Maharashtra. The views expressed by the authors are personal.