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Can there be a ‘socially responsible’ tea in Assam and West Bengal ?

FEBRUARY 23, 2014
by ASHWINI SUKHTANKAR AND PETER ROSENBLUM

Almost four years ago, we first traveled to , a tea estate in the Dooars, so far north that it nuzzles the Bhutan border. The region has recently fallen prey to the craze of “tea tourism,” and the estates jostle for space with eco-green-homestay lodges that lure middle class families with the opportunity to play at a mythic British sahib-memsahib life, sitting on verandahs sipping tea while gazing out over vast reaches of picturesque monoculture, with rows of squat green bushes as far as the eye can see.

We were not unmoved by the beauty and the weight of history, but we were there to talk to workers and to understand what plantation life meant for them in the 21st century.

At Rungamuttee, we sat perched in red plastic chairs, almost brushing knees with a sinewy old man, also in a red plastic chair in the tiny “labour quarters” that he shared with his children and grandchildren.

The old man at Rungamuttee in his red chair

The old man at Rungamuttee in his red chair

He leaned forward and unfurled the frayed scroll in his hand. It was his “depot challan,” the document that he had been given when he showed up at the labour depot in Ranchi in 1955, and it told him that he had been assigned a job as a tea labourer in Jalpaiguri District, more than three days’ journey away. Written in Sadri, the lingua franca of the Adivasi workers who came from all over Chota Nagpur to labour in the tea plantations of Bengal and Assam, it told him how to get to the Rungamuttee estate, and what he should expect, by way of terms and conditions of work once he got there.

Rungamuttee depot challan

Rungamuttee depot challan

For Hindi speakers, the subtleties of Sadri are just beyond reach. Over three years, we returned over and over to our copy of that depot challan – a document which was not quite a contract – trying to make sense of its promise of opportunity framed in a harsh reality. Finally, we sat with , a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Guwahati who was born and raised on the Rungamuttee estate, in a family of plantation workers. Hunched over the facsimile of the document on our laptop, Professor Xaxa translated its promises and warnings. The document made no attempt to conceal the hardship of life on the plantation: in minute detail, it disclosed the required tasks (leveling land, digging ditches, pruning bushes, plucking tea), the low wages (low for men, even lower for the women or children who, it was assumed, would accompany the men to work) and the frequent, deadly illnesses (fevers, dysentery, worms, malaria).

At the old cemetery in Rungamuttee, solemn stone angels attest to the hardships, even for a far more privileged segment of the plantation population. The statues stoop over the bones of young British planters, dead of malaria and kala pani; their wives, dead in childbirth, and their young children. Many more workers died in those years, though no one can be sure just how many. Estimates from the Planters’ Gazette from the late 19th century suggest that mortality rates for labour were as high as one in three.

Much has changed since then, but it is a shock to realize how much has not changed for plantation workers. They remain an impoverished, largely illiterate population, living on the margins. By every conceivable public health measure – maternal mortality, infant mortality, frequency of typhoid and dysentery epidemics, life expectancy – workers are worse off than the general population, according to statistics of the Indian Council of Medical Research. The plantations refuse to acknowledge the disparities in the official “death logs.” Elias Kujjur, an employee at PAD, an NGO in Tezpur, was once a welfare officer at Nahorani, a plantation in Assam; he shared some of the ways that he himself was told to conceal the impact of miserable living conditions and impoverishment in the death logs. “Respiratory illness,” he explained, was a euphemism for malnutrition. Deaths that implicated the unhealthy, unsanitary living conditions – typhoid, or diphtheria – were routinely characterized as “old age,” or other “natural causes.”

What has changed, particularly in the last decade, is the rhetoric of the plantation owners and the high level marketing ploys of tea companies. It is not enough to sell good tea, it has to be “fair trade,” good for workers, and certified as socially responsible. As declared in a recent document supported by all of the largest tea brands and social responsibility NGOs working in the sector, tea is a potential “Hero Crop,” making a better life for all of its workers and consumers.  But as our three years of research shows, the rhetoric so far outpaces the reality that it has a created perverse incentive for companies – and even social responsibility NGOs – to deny and cover up the horrendous conditions that researchers like Virginius Xaxa have been documenting for decades.

In interviews across the country, management cavalierly declared that life was good for the workers.  They cited provisions of the as if they were an established reality rather than a famously unfulfilled promise. Managers pointed to the law’s guarantees of decent housing, food rations, medical care, schools for their children, all at the employer’s expense. Problems, if any were pointed out, were always beyond their control. For example, the low wages, they reminded us, were set through tripartite negotiations among unions, the government, and the state branch of the .

The company-provided creche at Rungamuttee

The company-provided creche at Rungamuttee

Employers may not mention that there is no minimum wage for the tea sector – a glaring omission that is just one indication of the sheer muscle of the planters’ lobby – and that the unions have been systematically decimated, through butchery or bribery, making wage negotiations something of a farce. They certainly fail to mention that government inspectors never venture into the “labour lines” where workers live, and so the fact that houses are crumbling, latrines overflowing, and rations composed merely of broken rice and fibrous atta – almost literally the scraps from the table – has become invisible. The government’s own statistics suggest that it has given up any effort at serious enforcement.  For 2008-9, the last years of available government data, the only fines levied for noncompliance with the law in all the West Bengal and Assam plantations was 54,000 rupees, and there had not even been one inspection per plantation.

Yet, so compelling are employers’ claims about the stringency of the law that private monitoring bodies which have begun to throng the plantations, peddling Fair Tea, Ethical Tea or Sustainable Tea, do not even bother to investigate whether they meet the basic thresholds of the law.

In fact, in our initial foray, even we had no intention of investigating those gaps.  It was one of those private mechanisms, the Fairtrade Labelling Organization (now Fairtrade International) that first contracted with us to try to obtain independent verification of their claim that Fair Trade “empowers” plantation workers. The plantations had volunteered to be part of the study, obviously intending to highlight the strides they had made.

The basic logic of Fair Trade is simple: Fairtrade International secures fixed, higher market prices for a given commodity and the value is shared by the producers.  But Fair Trade was initially developed for producer cooperatives, where it may be safe to assume that benefits are spread more equitably.  For tea, the organization agreed to extend certification to traditional plantations with hired labour, rather than cooperatives, in exchange for a commitment that they improve conditions and implement a living wage for workers.  The plantations are also required to set up committees of workers and management, who work together to implement community development programmes, also funded through Fairtrade.

When we met Ashim Roy, then General Secretary of the New Trade Union Initiative, he asked us how much we knew about the profound inequities built into the structure and history of tea plantations. “I don’t know how there could be such a thing as ‘fair’ tea,” he said bluntly.

Our research on Fair Trade tea began with Rajah Banerjee, the proprietor of Makaibari, a pretty little estate in Darjeeling with many certifications – not only Fair Trade, but also organic and biodynamic. Banerjee, a pioneer of Fair Trade in India, presents the perfect image of a reformed capitalist who has seen the light.  He bemoaned the “outmoded colonial hierarchies” that prevail on the plantations, and described his struggle to overcome them, and to create a relationship of “genuine equality and respect” with his workers. While deprecating the low wages that prevail throughout the tea industry (Rs.62.50 a day at the time of our visit, in early 2010), he justified not paying more, noting that he was instead supporting workers in supplementing their own incomes through “grassroots entrepreneurship,” selling the fruit and spices that grow wild in Makaibari’s forests, gathering honey from the hives he has set up, or hosting tourists in the “homestays” that he has helped them establish. He estimated that they were earning “twenty, or even thirty thousand rupees a month” through these schemes, numbers that turned out to be pure confabulation.

The Fair Trade system loves Rajah Banerjee and Makaibari. Banerjee has used Fair Trade funds to set up a library for workers; he has been trying to encourage the use of biogas from cow dung, to wean workers from firewood and its environmentally destructive consequences; he speaks fluently of supporting women workers as community leaders. The principles of economic empowerment he espouses strike a chord inside an organization that rather fetishizes the “plucky entrepreneur,” and has some amount of disdain for those who are merely dependent on an employer, or the government.

And there the dissonance lies, since the plantation system was never intended to enable independence. As Ashim Roy suggested, the plantations’ very structure is one of inequity and exploitation.

The Plantation Labour Act merely tries to provide a veneer of humanity over a profoundly troubled structure, where the state has otherwise washed its hands of all responsibility. Plantations provide schools, but only up to the 4th standard, thus ensuring that a new generation of young people will have little choice but to take their parents’ place as illiterate plantation labour. Instead of paying decent wages, where workers could make their own decisions about housing, food and health care, plantations parsimoniously allocate these benefits, and monitor them vigilantly. So, for example, if a worker is admitted to the plantation hospital, and therefore needs to be fed, that amount of rice will be carefully deducted from her rations. Plantation managers complain ceaselessly about workers’ demands to have their houses repaired, their latrines cleaned. However, they will not consider simply turning over the title to the houses to the workers who inhabit them. “If we did that, how would we control them?” asked a manager at Namroop, an estate in upper Assam.

At another Fair Trade tea garden, Korakundah, part of the United Nilgiri Tea Estates in Tamil Nadu, a manager characterized the system of “social benefits” and low wages in a manner that amounted to a defense of slavery: “We feed them, we give them a house, we take care of their medical needs,” he explained, “why do they need to be paid at all?”

With respect to Makaibari, then, it is not surprising that workers are not ready to join in the adulation heaped on Rajah Banerjee by proponents of Fair Trade tea. In particular, they complained about the caprice of a man who sets up frivolous projects such as computer labs, while ignoring their basic needs, which are supposed to be protected by law. Workers, for the most part, have no access to water – in Upper Koilapani, the most remote division of the plantation, they are forced to walk an hour and a half each way, every day, up steep hills with aluminium containers strapped to their backs to collect water from a nearby stream. Banerjee has set up a “health awareness team” to encourage workers to take better care of themselves, and has a homeopath on staff at the Makaibari clinic – but there is no regular doctor, and workers are owed lakhs of rupees in reimbursement for basic medical expenses. More than half of workers’ houses are in urgent need of basic repairs, according to a local labour leader, with missing doors, crumbling walls, or collapsed roofs.

As Professor Xaxa notes, no plantation has ever fully complied with the strictures of the Plantations Labour Act. He is unconvinced, in fact, that this piece of legislation – which he characterizes as a codification of paternalism – is truly in the interests of plantation workers. Certainly, if their liberation from the plantation system is truly the goal, then it may not be. But workers are impoverished in terms of alternatives to the Plantations Labour Act, in terms of a vocabulary of entitlements. However, this is not for want of trying.

At Makaibari, workers remember the brief heyday of CITU in Darjeeling with real nostalgia. One wistfully described the first CITU-sponsored gherao of Makaibari management in 1983 as “our independence day,” a demonstration that there could be an alternative to the extreme feudalism and control that had prevailed. But when the CPI(M) in West Bengal came to an arrangement with the planters’ lobby, CITU was brought to heel.

Today, the plantations are a cauldron of simmering tension. At a daily level, workers live their lives without open resistance to the surveillance, the small humiliations. At many plantations, workers are not allowed any visitors in the “labour lines” – the only homes they have ever known. Workers describe plantation doctors who won’t even touch them when they come in for care, managers who speak to them in a tone usually reserved for school teachers addressing children. And then occasionally, a line is crossed, and the suppressed rage explodes. It is rarely clear how much is too much for workers to bear. At Nowera Nuddy, an estate in the Dooars, workers rose up in protest when a pregnant woman worker collapsed in the field and was denied medical care. At Powai, an estate in Upper Assam, a manager allegedly prodded a dead worker with the tip of his shoe to make sure he was really dead, leading to worker protests and destruction of property. A manager at another Assam estate, Tulapathar, was burned to death in his bungalow, along with his wife, in the wake of anger over unpaid wages and verbal abuse.

In this context, it is easy for both workers and managers to look at the benevolent paternalism of the Plantations Labour Act, and the British system on which it was based, through a rosy veil of nostalgia.

Back at Rungamuttee in the Dooars, the old man we interviewed reminisced in his red plastic chair about the days of British managers – the social events they organized in the Labour Club, the visits they paid to dying workers in their homes, the packages of food they personally delivered on special occasions. His grandson, a leading activist of the Progressive Tea Workers’ Union, a new and militant workers’ movement that had just begun to ripple through Jalpaiguri District, squirmed and looked ashamed.

Rungamuttee is not a fair trade estate. But our research into fair trade was called off and our findings buried by the organization we were working for, as we began to report that conditions on Fair Trade-certified plantations were not noticeably better – and in some cases, were significantly worse – than conditions in the tea sector as a whole. The breaking point, perhaps, was when we reported that we had encountered a group of migrant child workers from Bihar, working 12 hour daily shifts in conditions of debt bondage in the tea factory of yet another jewel of the ethical pantheon, Chamraj in Tamil Nadu. In the wake of the revelations, Chamraj continued to be featured prominently on the website of various Fair Trade marketing organizations as a model tea plantation, and we turned our attention elsewhere, to the bigger picture of crisis and change in the Indian tea sector, and the impact on workers.

The period of economic shock on tea plantations dates back to the early 2000s, when the price of tea leaf dropped suddenly and precipitously. Many plantations closed and, in their isolated labour lines, workers suddenly deprived of wages, food rations and water supply began to starve to death, by the hundreds. Even on the plantations that survived the crisis, the issue of labour costs – as well as the legacy costs for retired workers who continued to live there – began to seem like a problem that ought to be solved. Some plantations tried to experiment with getting rid of workers altogether, turning to “bought leaf,” grown and plucked by small-scale growers who would then be paid by the kilo and receive no other benefits or guarantees. Still others thought to get rid of the plantations, and focus their energies on branding and selling tea, rather than growing it. This was the decision made by the Tatas.

Rungamuttee is one of 24 estates that used to constitute Tata Tea’s plantation operations in North India, spreading across the Dooars in North Bengal and along the banks of the Brahmaputra in Assam. In 2007, these tea interests were systematically restructured, with the plantations being spun off into a separate corporation, Amalgamated Plantations Private Ltd (APPL). This allowed Tata Tea to distance itself from the liabilities associated with the 31,000 permanent workers and their families, and at the same time, to focus its attentions on the area where real money is to be made – retail – by rebranding itself as “Tata Global Beverages Ltd.”

To finance this deal, Tata reached out to the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – an arm of the World Bank that deals with private companies, rather than states – and also sold part of the company to its workers, in the form of a share ownership plan. The IFC, even though it is involved in private lending, is still bound by the mandate of the World Bank to promote “development,” and it trumpeted this deal as a model example of empowering workers, by turning them into significant stakeholders in the company and its future success.

The description of the share ownership plan, in “local languages,” was distributed to the workers. Even though we were dealing with a document in Hindi this time, we still had to enlist the help of an “insider” to understand it – in this case, an economist, Mohan Mani, of the Centre for Workers’ Management. Written in an opaque and formal Hindi, the document describes a complex scheme, where workers will acquire Cumulative Compulsorily Convertible Participatory Preference Shares, guaranteeing 6% dividends for four years, after which they convert to common stock. The workers’ participation was enabled through an Rs.8000 loan, which they were repaying through wage deductions over seven years.

Clearly, Tata’s management model does not try to replicate the stern-but-caring father figure that the old man at Rungamuttee remembered from the days of British planters. Perhaps more of a cold, distant father figure. Managers are not posted at a single plantation for long periods of time, to build relationships there, but rather cycle through the 24 plantations, relocating every three or four years from one to another. They are a remote, almost invisible presence in workers’ lives, and their decisions are relayed to workers through an extensive, intricate hierarchy of babus, supervisors, staff and sub-staff.

And it was this network of authority that bullied, badgered and cajoled workers into participating in a scheme that they avowedly did not understand. Supervisors visited workers in their homes to pressure them to buy shares. Field staff threatened that workers would not get paid unless they participated in the scheme. On a number of estates, in an unprecedented step, the “bada sahib” – General Manager – called a meeting of workers, and personally urged them to sign the forms. “What could we do, how could we say no?” complained a worker at Dam Dim, describing the encounter. “We never see him otherwise. It was as though the Prime Minister himself had come to ask us.”

Some workers told us that they had believed they would receive Rs.8000 in cash if they signed the form. Others thought they would receive an unspecified bonus. Almost no one understood the workings of the share bazaar, the possibility that they might not receive any dividend some years, or that the value of their investment could dwindle to nothing.

No one who has any understanding of tea plantation workers’ lives could swallow this vision of progress and empowerment. It is not defensible to present workers deprived of a halfway decent education with a dense legalistic document in Hindi, and call it “informed consent” when they sign on the dotted line.

The restructuring plan at the former Tata Tea estates also called for economic diversification, encouraging new ventures such as fisheries, dairies, and black pepper cultivation on parts of the tea estate that were currently lying fallow. The IFC cheered this proposal also, welcoming the environmental sustainability associated with a move away from monoculture, as well as the prospect of new jobs for the community.

The IFC apparently did not realize that there is very little fallow land sitting around, waiting to be improved upon. The fisheries set up by APPL – which have made the company the single largest producer of fish in the state of Assam – simply seized the land that had been allotted to workers under British “depot challans” like the one we saw in Rungamuttee. Those documents had promised plots where workers and their families could grow rice and vegetables to supplement their meagre rations, but the new company apparently felt no obligation to respect the old commitment, and did not even compensate the workers for what was taken away. Not even with extra rations. And our conversations with workers make it clear that not a single new permanent job was created as a result of the diversification.

We were back at Rungamuttee a year ago. The old man we had met had died the year before. His grandson remains an active trade unionist, but organizing gains are hard to come by where workers are considered so disposable and interchangeable. Workers had arrived at our meeting with their payslips, and bewailed the fact that, after 12 days of hard labour every fortnight, they took home barely Rs.400 or Rs.450 a fortnight. Many payslips show deductions of more than Rs.300 a fortnight just for electricity, even though connections in the labour lines aren’t even switched on for more than a few hours a day. In this context, the “nominal” deduction for the share plan – Rs.47.62 – actually amounts to a tenth of workers’ take-home pay. These workers, trying to sustain their households on such earnings, easily fit within even a miserly definition of “below poverty line.” However, they receive no such benefits, insulated from scrutiny by the government-within-a-government where they live.

As we were leaving, we happened to encounter an old friend of Virginius Xaxa’s, Mohan Lama – a retired mechanic on the estate. He reminisced about the various efforts, over the years, to transform the toxic power relations and structures of exploitation that prevail on tea estates, beginning with the Sonali Cooperative, a worker takeover of a closed plantation in the early 1970s. It was, certainly, a less cynical venture than the IFC-funded development initiatives, or fair trade. But it was no more successful: as soon as the cooperative began to flourish, the former owners tried to reclaim it, and in the ensuing litigation, the cooperative was destroyed.

Today it is hard to imagine, as Ashim Roy said, what ethically produced tea might look like. The histories and current realities of coercion, deprivation and government neglect make the idea of easy solutions seem naive. It may take a revolution, but the revolution will not be fair trade certified.

Ashwini Sukhtankar and Peter Rosenblum have worked on a report on labour conditions in Indian tea plantations, titled “The More Things Change…” The World Bank, Tata andEnduring Abuses on India’s Tea Plantations

 

Read more here –http://kafila.org/2014/02/23/can-there-be-a-socially-responsible-tea-ashwini-sukhtankar-and-peter-rosenblum/

 

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