Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

The Story of Tea Workers in the State of Assam, India.

At 7 a.m. the long deafening siren has just sounded at the Dejoovalley Tea Estate, situated in the Nagaon District Assam - Tea & Human Rightsof Assam in India. Like hundreds of other workers, SusantiToppo (45), leaves home hurriedly. She remembered the line Chaukidar (in-charge of the labourers settlement) announced two hours ago, even before it was bright: “Parmet motachalan[1] (permanent listed male workers) will go for plucking in no. 2 bagan (plot of plantation bearing no.2); the faltu maiki chalan (temporary women workers) will go for Kolom kata (pruning) in no. 12 bagan; chokra chalan (adolescent boys) will go for nalakora (deep hoeing of drains) and chokri chalan (adolescent girls) will do thonga bhora (filling soil in the plastic packets for nursery) in no. 6 Bagan”. Susanti(45) lives with her husband Sukra Lakra (48) and four 4 children in no. 11 line[2]  of the Dejoovalley Tea Estate.

She gets up before 4 a.m. As there is no toilet in the hutment area, she walks for 10 minutes to the tea plantation for her needs. Many other women like her have to rise up before it is bright, as later all men wake up and use the same plantation area for that purpose. She quickly sweeps the house, boils some rice. Leaving the children to manage themselves, she serves food to her husband who has to leave for work too. After getting the basket (used for storing the plucked leaves), and tarpaulin[3] for her husband and dao[4] for herself. However, she cannot leave immediately as her youngest 2-month old child wakes up and cries incessantly. She breastfeeds her. When done, leaving the infant with her elder seven-year-old daughter, Charki picks up the dao, turpolin and small bottle of oil mixed with tobacco and lime to remove leeches when they cling onto her feet to suck the blood. She hurries. “Bring Maiya during the ojonsamai (hour of leaf weighing) to 12 no. bagan for feeding”.  “ Han ayo,” (Yes, mom), replies Charki.

As she expected, the sardar (supervisor) says many abusive words and does not allow her to work since she arrives 15 minutes late. “Go back home, have you come now to show your body?” She pleads him to allow her to work. Loss of a day’s wage is loss of food for the family. She is finally allowed. After she pruned some 40 tea bushes, her energy is drained. Charki arrives with Maiya for feeding. As she breastfeeds, the sardar again hurls abuses. As she is unable to complete her quantum of tasks, she calls for her elder 12 year-old son to help her with work. One hundred tea bushes are too many for her to complete pruning in a day. And, failure to reach the quantum means slicing down the wage by half.

Back home at 5 in the evening, Susanti, collects fire wood, cleans the house, and washes the clothes of the children, cooks food and feeds the family. It is time to retire at 9 p.m. Since there is no electricity, and no other tasks, she is happy to retire to ‘bed’ (the mat on the floor). She has to wake up before it is bright. And in her place by 4.30 a.m. it is bright.

There are 765 tea estates in Assam and more than 100,000 smaller gardens spread over 2.3 million hectares of land that together produce over 570 million kilos of tea annually[5]. The total turnover of the Indian tea industry was around Rs 19,500 crore in 2011. India is the world’s largest consumer, second largest producer and fourth largest exporter of tea after China and accounts for nearly 30% of global output and nearly 25 percent of tea produced worldwide.[6] However, as cited above, there are serious labour and human rights violations happening across the tea estates in Assam. The workers are paid wages as low as $1.43 per day. Their working and living conditions are atrociously bad.

In February 2013, three NGOs, formed with members of workers families after a systematic study was done with Columbia Law School, filed a complaint on the workers behalf citing rights violation not in-line with the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) of the World Bank. Though a CAO team visited the gardens in July and September 2013, nothing substantial was reported. Instead, workers who had met the CAO officials were retaliated against.

As a part of on a media exercise and an Individual Conflict Analysis, Stephen Ekka (Head of Complainant NGO), along with Carolina Seinfeld (Project Coordinator of the Legal Aid Foundation), Bridget Brehen (Accompaniment Project Program Coordinator of the Network in Solidarity Guatemala) and Ipek Tasli (Head of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Canadian Kurdish Association for Human Rights) prepared a press release. The press release supported the PAJHRA’s associates and team back home in India, of which resulted in a media campaign launched during the 3rd week of February. Stories were published in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Telegraph and many other leading newspapers and journals[7].

The Tata Global Beverage, which sells its tea under the brand name Tetley Tea, whose gardens were renamed Amalgamated Plantation Private Limited, were cited cases. It denied the charges. However, at the moment there has been positive responses from many media houses that are plan to further highlight the cases. We hope that through the media campaign, and as a result of the demonstrations back home, the companies will improve the working and living conditions of the workers and give a just and humane wage. Thanks to my supportive Rotary Peace Fellows, who are contributing towards bringing justice to the tea workers.

Stephen Ekka, India
Rotary Peace Fellow
January 2014

[1] Each plantation divides the workforce into groups called chalans. They are categorized as follows: permanent male workers and female workers; temporary male and female workers; adolescent boys and girls. Adolescent workers are paid half the wage.

[2] Lines are the hutment area, where the labour quarters are situated in rows. Each row normally has 20 or more houses and one line has 50 more rows, where the total population will vary between 4,000 to 10,000 persons.

[3] To wrap around from chest to knee so that it does not tear the skin or clothes.

[4] Long hook knife used for pruning.





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This entry was posted on March 3, 2014 by .
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