Struggles of tea garden workers in Assam
Sipped with lime and honey in expensive china by manor dwellers and savoured in tiny chipped glasses with milk and sugar by commuters in Indian railway stations, Assam tea is a household name for most lovers of the brew. However the story behind the cultivation, plucking and processing of tea leaves in the plantations is one of exploitation and untold hardships for the toiling workers who are the singular reason that this industry is one of the pillars of the Assam economy, and in making the entire Northeast Indian region the largest tea-growing region in the world.
Across the many plantations in Assam, most of which are situated in the upper parts of the state, the condition of the tea garden workers is nothing short of abysmal. Adivasis brought in as indentured slave-labour from Central India by the British form the vast majority of the workers, with the rest consisting of other local tribal communities, as well as Nepalis, Bengalis, Oriyas and so on. Even today, the working conditions today are a far cry from the regulations of the Plantation Labour Act brought out in 1951 to protect the interests of workers in plantations, who form the single largest organised sector workforce in Assam and the entire Northeast region numbering anywhere between 8 to 10 lakhs depending on the season.
Babloo, Signus and Ranjit, all workers in Mornia Tea Estate in Lower Assam, complained that they had to drink bitter-tasting, hard water from pre-existing wells, when in fact they're supposed to receive drinking water either through taps or tankers from a public water source. Late wage payments were another huge problem, with some workers receiving their wages as late as 3 to 4 months after the due date. Garden workers received around Rs. 1400 per month on paper, but portions were cut from that for shelter repair (which hadn't been conducted in over 10 years), canteen facilities (non-existent), and educational facilities (again non-existent). This translated to a real wage of about Rs. 45 per day, far lesser than the prescribed daily minimum wage of around Rs. 54. They further said that Provident Fund had been cut on a monthly basis from their salaries, yet since 2000 no retired worker had received gratuity from PF. When asked about this, management simply shifted the blame to their predecessors. The school was in a decrepit condition and the only education the children received, when they weren't working, was from the local church.
Further up north in Nagaon, workers said that the little benefits they did receive in earlier times were rapidly getting eroded over the years. This included rations, free medicines at the hospital in Kandoli Tea Estate (which has now been downgraded to a dispensary), money for firewood at Sagubhai Gardens and many others, all of which have disappeared with further and further deregulation measures in favour of capital in the post-liberalisation era. AIALA leader Arup Mahanto pointed to the nexus between management, police and corrupt union leaders as one of the crucial reasons for the deteriorating situation. Indeed, 4 of the 5 workers interviewed had been suspended and dismissed due to their attempts at mobilising workers, and all 4 now try to eke out livelihoods by working in the even more exploitative stone-quarry industry or selling firewood, while trying to fight a legal battle to get reinstated. Women, who are the backbone of the tea industry and the large majority of the workforce, are in fact preferred as labour because most managers feel that they are particularly suited for garden work and easier to exploit.
Discussions with progressive labour activists, tea garden workers and even upstanding labour department officials reveal the factors contributing to this situation. It is amply evident that post-liberalisation, labour has taken a real beating with the state often kowtowing to capital’s demands for further deregulation.
Furthermore the tea industry has been passing through a crisis with the free import of low priced tea and reduced exports being among its main reasons. This has again affected labour in a harsh manner, with managers increasingly using contract labour, thus reducing benefits, in order to ensure continued profits. Plantation owners across India have refused to accept responsibility for social costs citing the crisis in the tea industry.
A senior labour department official in Assam, who has witnessed numerous violations of the Plantation Labour Act in the tea gardens he has inspected said that one of the main reasons owners feel emboldened to neglect labour welfare as per law is that even if prosecuted a case can drag on for years in courts, hardly easy for the working poor to deal with. And in the off chance that a verdict favouring labour is given, the punishment meted out for violations of the act is far too mild, usually a nominal fine that is hardly a financial hit for the owner of a tea plantation.
The same labour department official testified to the corrupt nexus between tea garden owners and state officials including even high ranking bureaucrats, former Assistant Labour Commissioners, as well as many judges. He said that some of the maximum corruption occurs with respect to the Workman’s Compensation Act that guarantees compensation for workers in case of injury or death. The tea garden owner, in what is nothing short of cold criminality, just figures out that it’s cheaper to bribe both the labour department official and the judge rather than pay the worker his due compensation. And then there’s always the fallback option for the business owners: the political bigwigs whose campaigns are funded by these very big businesses.
The third and possibly most changeable factor contributing to the exploitation of tea garden workers is the corruption and complete pro-management functioning of the Assam Cha Mazdoor Sangh (ACMS) affiliated to the Congress-backed INTUC federation. ACMS has a complete hegemony over the labour scenario in the tea gardens of Assam, and essentially run as the on-the-ground labour controlling wing of the garden owners.
In the Mornai Tea Estate, the president and general secretary of the local union (from ACMS ) didn’t even know about the Plantation Labour Act 1951! While in Kandoli Tea Estate, the ACMS unit was instrumental in teaming up with managers as well as the police and orchestrating the dismissal of numerous workers who were struggling to get compensation for the family of one of their dead fellow-workers in addition to fighting for better medical benefits.
In direct contrast to the ACMS is the much smaller and infinitely more valiant Assam Sangrami Cha Shramik Sangh (ASCSS) which has led numerous struggles and won some important victories in the few tea gardens where it has a base. And while one didn’t see a single woman in any of the meetings with ACMS unions, all the ASCSS meetings had at least a third of the participants being women. In addition, all of the ASCSS unit leaders had a good understanding of labour rights as well as the need to tackle issues of self-exploitation among workers such as patriarchy, alcoholism, and sectarianism.
Subhash Sen, veteran trade union leader in Assam and leader of the ASCSS pointed out that it was under the tenure of former Deputy Health Minister, Pawan Singh Gatwar, a former Vice President of INTUC and leader of ACMS, that hundreds of tea garden workers died of gastroenteritis and malaria, with nothing being done by the ministry. Sen further outlined the need and plans of the ASCSS in trying to break this hegemony of the ACMS and build a genuinely progressive movement that yields positive results for workers in the long-run.
However launching a struggle in the tea gardens of Assam that can break the state-owner nexus as well as the hegemony of a corrupt, derelict union is no easy task. The courageous militancy shown by the members and leaders of the ASCSS in many struggles is a step forward, one of many that needs to be taken, but a hopeful sign nevertheless.
- Sriram Ananthanarayanan