By Oxfam India
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Storm In A Teacup: Deepak's Story

Story of violation of tea workers’ rights in Assam’s tea gardens

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Workers’ Rights: A Policy Blind Spot

Deepak is a ‘Sardaar’ at a tea plantation. The ‘Sardaar’ is a supervisor. He worked up the ladder in the last 18 years — started from being a tea leaf picker, then a worker in the tea factory, and now a supervisor. A Sardaar is often seen as someone who is close to the management and unlikely to speak up for the workers. But he belies the image. In fact, he is angry. On one occasion, he injured his finger during pruning and went to the hospital for first aid. They had no first aid, not even a Tetanus shot. He got so angry he called for shutting the hospital. He was very angry with the school also; there are nearly 300 children and only 3 teachers. “What is the point of a hospital that cannot give the basic medicines and a school that is understaffed to teach children,” he says. He and other tea plantation workers locked out the hospital and school out of sheer frustration. The management took note of this and even threatened to remove him from employment.

“Our father and grandfather told us that tea is called Kala sona. We work for it but we cannot even drink good tea. We are never given the good tea we produce in the factories,” says Deepak alluding to the monthly ration of 300 grams of tea leaves that workers are given. It is more like tea dust!

Deepak cherishes education and hence his frustration over non-functional schools within the plantation. He wasn’t able to continue with his studies due to very less wages and weak financial conditions at home; he started working in the plantation while ensuring that his four siblings completed their school at least. He is hoping to save up and send his sons to a private residential school in a couple of years.

Deepak is a permanent worker while his wife is a temporary worker. And though he has become a Sardaar, he still gets weekly wages unlike monthly salaries that some of the old-timer Sardaars get; he gets the same Rs 167 that other tea garden workers get. What makes him angry is the fact that tea companies exploit the helplessness and the plight of the hapless workers.

“If we weren’t so helpless, we wouldn’t have been workers like this”

He agrees to talk to us during his lunch break, which he grabs in a hurry so as to not lose any time. He is eager to talk about the plight of the workers. Drawing a comparison, Deepak points out that while the tea estate manager and officers have a retinue of servants cooking and cleaning for them, the workers are not even given toilets or tubewells.

While plantations provide houses, there are often no toilets, bathrooms or tubewell facilities in them. Out of the different plantations that we went to, one had functional toilets, which was given by the company itself but the cleaning of the septic tanks was incumbent on the homeowners. Which, they said was done by the company in the past. At another plantation, the toilet was provided many years ago and they now lay in dilapidated conditions, in desperate want for repair.

At yet another plantation, there were no toilets built by the company. In fact, the houses got the toilets in a recent Swachch Bharat Abhiyaan drive; while the construction was done people weren’t using them yet. Some said that they were waiting for the official confirmation to start using the toilets, others were not sure if they wanted to use it at all. Lack of water facilities within the toilet is a huge deterrent. Very few, who are financially better off, have managed to keep a functional toilet at home.

The tea companies haven’t provided for drinking water facilities at homes either. At best there is one tubewell for a cluster of 5-10 houses or piped water supply at the crossroads of the labour lines, which caters to about 10-15 houses or more. Only those who can afford to, have dug their own tubewells or the traditional wells. With parents off to work, the water fetching duties during the day falls on the children, mostly daughters. Before leaving for work, mothers collect water for cooking, washing, and cleaning; once the children are back, they collect water for the second half of the day. Families need almost 8-14 buckets of water daily depending upon the size of the family.

“The plantations do not provide even for bleaching powder to clean up the hand pumps. Even when we complain about dirty waterlogged roads, no one comes to clean up. This causes diseases. But they do not care. They just want the work done at the least possible cost; so earlier when a job required five people, now two people are made to do the same work.”

Even the houses need repair. The ceilings in most homes have a false ceiling made up of old sarees. These are called neelami sarees or second-hand sarees that are stitched together, along with frills on the side, and nailed to the walls to make a false ceiling. This provides some protective layer from water and sun, especially in case of a damaged roof. Many houses that we went to had leaky roofs and mossy walls. Though complaints are lodged for repair, the company invariably never does the work. Any repair work is carried out only when the workers have managed to save some money and are often done in a piecemeal manner.

Drawing the attention to the plight of workers during work, Deepak said how those who sprayed pesticides in the field are never given any protective covering—goggles, gloves, masks, and boots. “Only when an outside agency like a company or a certifying agency is supposed to come for visits, are we given masks and gloves and shirts to wear. As soon as the visit is over, all of it is supposed to be returned to the company. Forget about protective gear, the plantation doesn’t even provide for soap and water to clean up after spraying,” he says. In fact, during the 15 days that we are traveling to different plantations, we saw just one house with a pair of rubber boots kept in the verandah. Else everywhere, workers went into the tea gardens wearing rubber chappals and were seen spraying without any protection at all.

Certifying agencies such as Fair Trade, Ethical Tea Partnership, have criteria for working and living conditions and ensuring that there is no violation of child labour laws and human rights. But as Stephen points out they have become instruments to sell their produce.
“If they are ethical, they will have systems in place. In the last 4-5 years, PAJHRA has campaigned around bringing this issue to the fore and some results were beginning to show,” said Stephen of PAJHRA.

The plantation is supposed to provide the workers with cane basket, umbrella, tarpaulin or rubber sheet to wear around the waist while plucking leaves, and rubber slippers. A few plantations have moved from the cane basket and provide cloth bags or nylon bags. The tarpaulin is usually of bad quality and doesn’t last more than a week; women continue working using polythene or finally buy one. The rubber slippers don’t last more than a few weeks but they get replacements only in a couple of years or in some cases even longer.

He rues the poor medical facilities. “For everything, they will give a Paracetamol and an injection. If I have to get a blood test, I will have to go out in the town. We do so much for the plantation, it would have been good to get these facilities within the plantation.” The plantation Deepak works in has two ambulances but they are used to ferry officers or transport medicines and even pesticides.

The labour unions are not strong enough. “Even when we put our demands to them, they always say that the head office in Kolkata will decide. They always cite losses that the plantation has incurred. They are regularly paid off by the management in money, firewood, and sometimes even in tea leaves. What is their incentive to fight for our rights?”

A welfare officer who is supposed to be overlooking these facilities hasn’t been appointed for almost 20 years informs Deepak. “Even auditors and labour inspectors who come for inspections to the plantation hardly ever come to the tea gardens where they can see the actual plight of the workers.”

“We have to do everything ourselves. They do not even pay for our shroud when we die, how can we expect them to give us our rights when we are alive?”