Tears Beneath the Tea Cups!

“The abject working and inhuman living conditions of tea labourers is reminiscent of the indentured labour introduced in colonial times by British planters,” noted a 2022 report by a Parliamentary Standing Committee. This Committee further emphasised on the importance of implementing the Minimum Wages Act for the tea garden workers. The Committee stated that the daily wage in Darjeeling tea estates is ''among the lowest paid to any industrial worker in the country.'' The Darjeeling tea estates, known world-wide as the ' champagne' of Indian teas, stands its own ground, alongside the teas from the Nilgiri Hills in South India and the plantations in Assam, is in the cusp of crisis passing through trying times.
This is the reality of tens of thousands of workers, in a sector with a higher number of women, who are paid meagre wages. It is tied together by a colonial labour system, sans land rights and with little access to government schemes. The wage rates are the lowest among all other plantation sectors which also indicates a persistent gender wage gap in the plantations. The tea gardens of Bengal and North Eastern India witnessed starvation deaths of more than 1400 people, and acute malnutrition during 2000 - 2015. The starvation, deaths and hunger seem to be hiding behind the lush green gardens.

There is no uniformity in wage structure for workers across states in tea and among other plantation sectors. The North Eastern region constitutes around 80 percent of the total land area under tea plantation and more or less equal productivity, the auction price of tea in North East (NE) India is higher when compared to South India, but the NE region shows depressed wages compared to the south. The initial gap in wage rate between regions of tea plantations widened and the difference is almost double now.

In West Bengal, after a series of tripartite meetings including all trade unions in the sector, (known as Joint Forum of Trade Unions in Tea Industries and Management), the state government proposed a minimum interim wage of Rs 250 per day, which the management denied and challenged in the High Court. The High Court (HC) rejected management's appeal and ordered immediate disbursement of Rs 250 per day as proposed by the state government. HC also ordered to fix minimum wages within a stipulated time frame of six months. This new interim minimum wage has been effective since 1st August. It has also been decided that the wages due for June-July shall be disbursed later. The increase in interim daily minimum wages is Rs 18 only. Henceforth, all workers are to receive this amount.

Daily wage of Assam's tea workers' was hiked by Rs 27 in 2022. However, this was much below the wages received by the plantation workers in the southern states. This hike from 1st August raises a worker's daily wage to Rs 232 in the tea-gardens located in the Brahmaputra valley, and to Rs 210 in gardens located in the Barak valley. Promise of higher wages for tea workers was one of the biggest poll-issues in the 2021 assembly election in Assam. Daily wages for plantation workers in Kerala are Rs 421.26, which is the highest in the country, followed by Rs 406.80 in Tamil Nadu and Rs 376.78 in Karnataka. These three states recently revised the wages upwards. Bihar and Tripura have the lowest wages for plantation workers - Rs 175 and Rs 176 respectively.

Along with their salary, workers in tea plantations are entitled to PF, gratuity, housing, free medical facilities, free education for their children, fuel and protective gear such as aprons, umbrellas, raincoats, high boots and creches for female workers. Currently, these are merely on paper. All these rights have been systematically violated. Non payment of PF dues and gratuity after retirement is very common in the industry.

The already precarious lives are at greater risk because the tea industry is facing serious challenges and problems due to climate change, competition from cheaper teas, recessionary global market and ebb in production and demand, etc.
The cupful of tea that cheers us every morning is now replete with tears! n