Tea Workers in a Tough Spot

Tea Workers in a Tough Spot

A nationwide lockdown, in order to flatten the COVID-19 curve, was imposed from March 25, 2020.  But despite the complete lockdown, tea plantation workers continued to work as it was the peak plucking season. In the meantime the tea industry also pushed for easing of norms citing loss of business* **; eventually the state government buckled, gave permissions and work (in full flow) resumed in the plantations around April 10. Tea workers were now allowed to operate at all times.

But despite several recommendations from the state and central governments to not deduct wages of employees during this time, many plantation workers had not received their daily wages or ration for a month after the initial lockdown, which only made it worse for them. In fact what made it worse was the clause that the companies won’t be prosecuted for non payment of wages during the lockdown period***. While this gave respite to the Tea Garden Management (wages were locked and no wages was paid for the period), the families of tea garden workers started running out of ration supply. The rice, wheat and tea leaves which was part of their weekly wages was also withdrawn during the lockdown period.

The tea industry employs around 1.2 million permanent workers, thereby being the largest employer in the formal private sector. Although the Plantation Labour Act (1951), applicable to all tea gardens, makes it mandatory for the plantation management to provide workers with various economic and social welfare benefits, several studies illustrate that workers have been historically subjected to exploitative work patterns, control mechanisms, low wage payments, deplorable housing and living conditions, inadequate supply of drinking water, poor levels of welfare benefits and lack of collective bargaining. The workers not only suffer on account of eviction but also face difficulty to search for alternative sources of employment. And now there is a pandemic, a lockdown and a bleak future staring at them.

The lockdown during COVID-19 has made matters worse for especially the temporary workers, which comprise almost 50% of the workforce. While the permanent workers continue with work, the temporary workers may or may not be called in for work. For the regular permanent workers, there have been reports of irregular payments and unjustified deductions. In fact, in some plantations, payments were made for only three days of work despite the workers having worked for six days a week. This continues even after three months of lockdown,  clearly straining their available resources and pushing them further into poverty. For the tea garden workers, thus, getting back to work despite the risk of exposure to the disease is not so much about supporting the industry as it is about desperation and compulsion.

For one the assurance of government schemes for tea workers like direct cash transfer and food grains ring hollow, considering very few workers have ration cards nor any other identity cards to prove their BPL status and avail of the benefits announced. So the only recourse is to join work and get whatever money they can, even if it comes at the risk of Covid-19. Ground reports show that there is complete violation of basic sanitation and hygiene protocols. “There is one bucket with a mug and a soap which is used by all and a common towel. We use this while entering the garden premises and also after leaving it,” said a tea garden worker on the condition of anonymity. “There is one soap for 30 workers”.

While physical distancing is being followed in the plantations during plucking, it is absolutely impossible to follow it in the labour lines (the area in the plantation which houses the living quarters of the tea workers) or within their homes which often accommodate more than six people in a very small space. So the risk of the disease spreading in these parts is very high. Moreover, during this lockdown the garden hospitals and its management have almost stopped responding to any other diseases — though in normal times too the garden hospitals ran with a few basic medicines — leaving the workers with no option but to live with the disease and with the uncertainty of recovering from it. The management is keen to respond only to those cases that might be a potential carrier of COVID-19 or might have displayed related symptoms of the disease.

Among the tea workers there is a growing concern regarding money. The impact is worse on the temporary workers who have almost no work and are running out of resources to support their families. There is no word yet that once the lockdown is completely lifted whether temporary workers will be able to get back to work. Stories from the ground have revealed that many have resorted to begging and borrowing to make both ends meet. While getting work through MGNREGA is something they can look forward to, for many trying to get one using a job card will be a first.

For the tea workers, the garden is their entire life and has been for generations. The dependence of the tea workers on the plantations is too high and the tea gardens should take this into cognizance while deciding the fate of the tea workers—temporary or permanent.



** As per the Tea Board of India official figures, the annual average price of tea of North India (which includes Assam) at the Indian auctions in 2019 was Rs 152.26 per kg. The total revenue loss of Assam tea industry due to lockdown = 80 million kgs × Rs 152.26 per kg = Rs 1,218 crore

*** https://www.financialexpress.com/india-news/lockdown-news-supreme-court-wages-full-payment-workers-employers-prosecution-coronavirus-update/1959905/

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