The Sydney Morning Herald

Families reap grim harvest on India's mighty tea plantations

Author: Jason Koutsoukis
Date: 06/12/2014
Words: 1483
Source: SMH
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: World
Page: 26
A cup of tea is symbolic of taking a break but for many tea workers that's unlikely. South Asia correspondent Jason Koutsoukis reports.

Last month, a group of workers at a West Bengal tea estate wedged between Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh abruptly ended wage negotiations with their boss, dragged him outside and beat him to death.

The victim was Rajesh Jhunjhunwala, 54, the owner of the 174-hectare Sonali Tea Estate in India's far northern reaches, which is considered small in a country where tea is the largest private-sector employer, providing work for more than 1 million permanent workers and up to 2 million seasonal labourers.

"Of course we are all devastated, and very afraid," Jhunjhunwala's cousin, Bikas Agarwal, told Fairfax Media. "The newspapers say this was about a dispute over wages. We are not sure, we think there are other motives. We are still in the mourning period so we have not begun the serious investigations, which will begin next week."

Police have sealed off the area around Sonali estate where the workers and their families live, to prevent further violence, and made six arrests in connection with the murder.

Tea labour unions, which have been negotiating a wage rise since April, say workers at the Sonali estate had not been paid for two months.

"If this was true, then that doesn't explain why the workers would kill him," Agarwal says. "Because if he is dead, then no one is getting paid."

Whatever the motive, violence on Indian tea plantations is not an isolated occurrence. In 2012, a tea plantation owner and his wife were burned alive when their bungalow was set alight by a mob of 1000 enraged workers, who told police the couple deserved to die because of the cruelty with which they had treated their workers.

The plight of Indian tea workers has become the focus of a major international campaign by groups such as Stop the Traffik and Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute, which argue poorly paid plantation workers and their destitute families are a major source for human traffickers. They lure away mainly women and children with promises of a new life but the victims end up enslaved in factories and households where wages are paid mostly to the traffickers.

In an investigation of the conditions faced by the workers and their families, Fairfax Media visited the remote Hattigor Tea Estate in northern Assam near the border with Bhutan, about five hours from the Assam capital, Guwahati.

Hattigor is partly owned by the Tata group, a giant Indian conglomerate, and is the source for prominent tea brands available in Australian supermarkets such as Tetley.

The plantation is home to about 5000 workers and their families. Life exists there in a kind of fossilised colonialism that would not be out of place in an E.M.Forster novel, where the plantation manager rules from an opulent, guarded bungalow, while the workers and their families make do in mosquito-infested slum housing.

Many of the tea pickers are third or fourth-generation workers who know little else but life among the rows of waist-high tea trees first planted by the British in the late 1800s.

Full-time workers earn a daily wage of about $1.75 and work eight hours a day, six days a week. Their wage is subject to deductions of at least 30 per cent for meals and accommodation. Seasonal labourers earn slightly less.

While most tea-plantation families have one full-time worker employed all year round, and another who gets seasonal work for six months of the year, their children are idle with little access to decent education. Just how vulnerable these children are to being exploited by merciless labour agencies was brought to wider attention in October when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to children's rights activist Kailash Satyarthi for his work on child labour conditions in India.

Many of the children of tea workers in plantations such as Hattigor end up as servants. Many others are trafficked into the red-light districts of cities such as Kolkata or Mumbai, or sold abroad.

"I was 13 years old," says Elena, now aged 15. "My father is an alcoholic, my mother works full-time in the plantation. I was born there and I had nowhere else to go."

The offer of a job in Delhi came from an older woman on the Hattigor estate. Illiterate, with few prospects, Elena was attracted by the offer of a salary of about 7000 rupees ($130) a month.

"A man came and I was taken first from Hattigor to Guwahati, and then after a few days of travelling I was taken to the office of an employment agency in Delhi," Elena says. "There were many other children there ... and I slept there on the floor while the agency found me a family to work for."

She was sent to a family of six. "I worked there for one year," she says. "I was never paid. Nothing. I was made to work until late at night and I had to get up very early in the morning.

"I was often slapped by the madam, she would beat me for not cleaning well enough, or not working hard enough."

After 12 months, she was returned to the employment agency and told her "contract" would not be renewed. "The man from the agency, he came to pick me up," Elena says. It was the first time she had left the grounds since she was sent there to work. "He gave me 500 rupees ($10) and he sent me to some people who were going back to Assam and told me to go with them."

Another woman, Sunita, 35, was less fortunate.

"It was November last year," Sunita says. "I was promised 5000 rupees per month, and I was eventually sent to a family in Delhi," she says.

Made to sleep on the floor under the dining room table, Sunita says she lasted six months.

"When the family would leave the house, they would lock me inside. I was only allowed outside to help do some shopping," she says.

Sunita says she was regularly beaten. "Always with the hand open, sometimes she would kick me, sometimes her children would help her beat me. I was never paid." After six months, Sunita fled back to the Hattigor township.

According to Raju Montra, 27, an anti-trafficking activist working for the All Adivasi Student Association of Assam, the agents who procure workers such as Elena and Sunita receive of up to 25,000 rupees a person.

"The incentives are very significant," Montra says. "Most of the people are not educated, they are from very poor families. Our work is mainly focused on stopping trafficking, stopping young girls being sold into slavery."

Among the changes that people such as Montra are calling for is a pay rise for the plantation workers. "We believe that a daily wage of 330 rupees would be appropriate."

Hattigor's management is aware the children of its workers are vulnerable to human traffickers, and is willing to engage on the issue, but it has been unwilling to lift the standard of living for their workers to a level that would make it difficult for human traffickers to operate, he says.

"There is a way to stop this exploitation, and I believe that managers are serious when they say they want it to end. The problem is at headquarters where people refuse to pay the workers what we believe they should be paid."

Even the local union appears to working against the interests of the tea pickers. According to a study by Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute in the United States, the Assam Tea Labour Union is a largely discredited organisation "in league with management" at work sites.

Carolyn Kitto, Australian convener of Stop the Traffik, argues that owners of tea plantations such as Hattigor are mainly big companies with the power to make the changes needed to support vulnerable communities to become resilient to modern slavery. "Prevention of human trafficking needs shared responsibility and this includes business," Kitto says. "Having a cuppa is a part of the Australian culture ... Australians have shown that they do care where the products they consume come from. We invite them to show they care about conditions that their tea causes, by writing to Tata Global Beverages, the owners of Tetley tea."

In answer to a series of written questions, Kaushik Biswas, company secretary for Amalgamated Plantations, the subsidiary company that directly owns the Hattigor estate, says his company is "committed to providing higher standards for living conditions for its workers and their families including safety and wellbeing of their children".

He says the wages paid to tea workers in Assam were set by an industry-wide wage settlement agreed with the workers' union and the Indian Tea Association.

"The APPL management confirms strict adherence to the minimum wages to be paid to employees as per law. The company goes beyond the dictates of the minimum wage agreements and provides workers with several other benefits."

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