Reading the Tea Leaves: Labor Rights Violations on India’s Tea Plantations

Tea is the second most consumed drink in the world, second only to water. Over three million tons of tea are produced every year worldwide. Much of that production takes place in India, which has the second highest level of tea production of any nation in the world. Yet, in the early 2000s, the Indian tea industry was on the brink of a crisis due to the closure of several tea estates. In 2006, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) entered into a partnership with Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL), one of the largest suppliers of tea worldwide. The IFC agreed to act as a neutral middleman, supporting fair labor and employment practices for both the workers and plantations. Both groups committed to implementing a new “worker-shareholder” model that allowed workers to buy shares and acquire stake in the company. However, a new compliance report released this month by the World Bank details several failures in the IFC’s oversight of the plantation operation in addition to evidence of extensive human rights violations faced by plantation workers.

These findings follow upon many other troubling accounts of the conditions on tea plantations over the past decade. In the last few years alone, various reports by NGOs and accountability groups have raised concerns about compliance with national and international legal requirements for housing, sanitation and basic services in the tea gardens of the Indian state of Assam. In response, the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) of the World Bank Group’s accountability office started looking into claims of human rights abuses in tea plantations owned by APPL.

The tea industry is India’s largest private sector employer, with over one million people living and working on plantations across the country. Workers in tea gardens are largely descendants of vulnerable ethnic tribal minority communities who were brought to tea plantations as bonded labor when India was colonized. Jobs on the tea plantations are traditionally passed down through generations, as workers stay trapped in a cycle of intergenerational poverty.

Tea workers have limited access to education or to economic opportunities outside the tea plantations and are therefore highly dependent on their employers. Working on a tea plantation is far more than a nine-to-five job for the millions of workers who depend on the industry to provide hospitals, sanitation, housing, and education for themselves and their families. The Plantation Labour Act of 1951 formalized these obligations, requiring tea plantations to provide essential services including hospitals with qualified doctors, an ample supply of drinking water, adequate sanitation, paid leave, regular breaks, nutritional meals, and safe housing. The CAO’s report finds APPL has failed to meet these requirements, reporting high rates of uncompensated child labor, maternal mortality, unsafe pesticide exposure and malnutrition.

Additionally, the CAO investigated concerns regarding APPL’s compensation of workers on their plantations and found the compensation inadequate. The legal minimum on APPL plantations is 240 rupees per day, which is roughly equivalent to $3.50. Currently, Assam tea workers only earn about 126 rupees per day, or about $1.83. Research done by external interest groups in Assam in 2014 showed that the minimum living wage needed to live on a tea plantation was at least 330 rupees per day, or around $4.80.

This extreme poverty and resulting issues of malnutrition, combined with restrictions on unionization, collective bargaining and access to outsiders, render it almost impossible for outside groups to intervene in order to help plantation workers. This has made it increasingly difficult for workers in Assam to secure better working conditions, as the findings in the report state. Stakeholders and human rights groups urge consumers and policymakers not to boycott APPL tea, but to take action by demanding greater protection of human rights by APPL, the IFC and the World Bank in order to ensure that the millions of workers on tea plantations across the country can live a life of dignity.

Article Source: “CAO Investigation of IFC Environmental and Social Performance in Relation To: Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL).” India. Rep. Office of the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman for the International Finance Corporation and Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency Members of the World Bank Group, 2016.

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Kiran Misra

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