Bonded Labour and the Tea Plantation Economy

Souparna Lahiri

Economic histories of western colonialism amply testify to the overriding presence of plantations in colonial economies. In Brazil and Malaysia it was rubber, in the West Indies it was sugar and in India it was tea. The conditions of labour in plantation economies, as historic evidence points out, have always been a matter of concern. Coercion and super-exploitation have always been the characteristics of the plantation economies. The migrant nature of its labour and social divisions have also contributed to the economic and social exclusion of the plantation labour. Like any other plantation economy, the tea plantation economy in India can thus be referred to as an enclave economy.

Tea plantation industry of Assam and West Bengal, together constituting the most productive region in the world, is more than 150 years old. There are more than 1500 tea estates in these two states employing around 1.1 million workers. Only during the last 50 years, in the post-independence period, has the tea plantation industry been covered by labour legislation, namely, the Plantation Labour Act, 1951. The first labour union, recognised by the industry, also came into being in 1947-48.

The tea industry in India has steadily prospered all through these years and is making huge profits even in the days of downturn. In 1998-99, India produced more than 850 million kgs. of tea whose market value was Rs.6,000 crores and exported 21.3 per cent of the total produce earning a foreign exchange equivalent of Rs.2,000 crores.

On the other hand, the tea plantation workers are still paid wages below the minimum wage of agricultural workers. An industry, which is highly capitalistic in character, considering its international marketing and financial activities, still pay their workers partly in cash and kind. Since 1947, the wage of the tea plantation labour has increased only numerically, there has been no rise in their real wage. In essence, the industry has still maintained feudal relations of production and a highly structured organisation of production in its pre-marketing phases thus reaping super-profits on the basis of semi-feudal, extra-economic coercion and exploitation.

The literacy rate among the tea garden workers and their families is a poor 20 per cent. Around one-third of the workforce is denied housing facilities. Every year, hundreds of people in the plantations die from water-borne diseases like gastro-enteritis and cholera. Most of the plantations have no potable drinking water facilities and drainage systems.

The majority of the workers are suffering from anaemia and tuberculosis. Malaria is rampant. There are tea gardens where at least one in every family is suffering from tuberculosis. And the children and women are the worst affected. Only one per cent of the tea garden population is considered active after attaining 60 years. The infant mortality rate is very high, far above the state and national averages. The death rate is 11.4 for every thousand. The company health system has completely collapsed. There are dispensaries and garden hospitals, but as the workers themselves say, for ‘treating cuts and wounds, distributing an all-purpose red mixture and even expired medicines’. In 1998, around 600 people died in the tea gardens of Assam due to gastro-enteritis, an almost equal number died in the gardens of West Bengal too. But this does not create ripples neither in the administration nor in political circles. The lush green façade of the tea plantations remain as serene and calm as ever.

The ethnicity of the tea workforce is probably one reason why nobody cares. More than 85 per cent of the tea plantation workers of Assam and West Bengal are tribals, fourth generation immigrants of indentured migrants from the Central Indian tribal heartland. Majority of the rest are lower castes originating from the same region. In Assam, they do not enjoy any the special status, as their brethrens elsewhere do. They are merely referred to as the tea labour and ex-tea labour community. The children cannot avail of any reservation facility in educational institutions, the youth do not enjoy any opportunity in the employment sphere. After passing from the lower primary schools of the gardens, they are forced to join the tea labour workforce as unskilled workers with no educational and alternative employment opportunity. Generation after generation, they remain tied to the gardens. They are ‘born in the gardens and die in the gardens’. They are the epitome of modern day bonded labour – the forced and unfree labour.

Quite surprisingly, the tea plantation industry is considered to be the largest organised industry in India employing the largest workforce. The workers are unionised. In West Bengal, there are 32 recognised unions. In Assam, the Assam Cha Mazdoor Sangh (ACMS) is representing the workers for the last 50 years, and is the only recognised union, though there are some more registered unions, some of them even affiliated to the central trade unions. Yet, there is not a single tea plantation where the Plantation Labour Act (PLA) is fully implemented. The wage agreements reflect more the domination and power of the tea industry associations. The workers are never considered to be skilled except a handful who work in the tea processing factories. They remain unskilled as ever with no promotional avenues open to them. Every worker, permanent or temporary, young or old, inexperienced or experienced, receives the same wage and are classified as daily wage workers. There is no question of computing dearness allowance or variable dearness allowance according to the scale of the Consumer Price Index (CPI). They do not receive Sunday wage. For them Sunday is an unpaid holiday. Arrears due after every wage agreement are seldom paid. The collective bargaining process in the tea industry does not reflect the other necessary aspirations of the tea workers. The agreements are conspicuously silent on housing, healthcare, educational and other facilities.

The last ten years of wage agreements show that the tea employers have not conceded any major demand of the trade unions. The tea associations have not agreed to the CPI-linked variable DA, minimum wage calculation according to the prescribed norms of treating a family as three consumption units, establishment of central hospitals, clearing the huge backlog of providing houses to the workers, providing adequate drinking water, drainage and electricity facilities to all the gardens, clearing provident fund dues, early gratuity to the retired workers and regularisation of all temporary workers. Nearly 40 per cent of the workers in the tea plantations of West Bengal and Assam are today temporary and casual workers. And their numbers are further increasing. Which means that these workers are not covered under and protected by the PLA. The tea industry thus is reaping all the benefits without investing a single paisa on a large section of its workforce.

Major struggles and strikes are few and far between. In 1969, there was a 21-day strike in the plantations demanding regularisation of temporary workers. Not much was conceded by the industry other than absorbing about 10,000 temporary workers. Last year, in July, the tea workers in West Bengal struck work for 10 days. An agreement was drawn up regarding regularisation of the temporary workforce, establishment of central hospitals and revamping the healthcare structure in the tea gardens. Nothing has been done so far. The strike was withdrawn only when the agreement was drawn up and signed at the intervention of Mr. Jyoti Basu, the chief minister of West Bengal.

The agreements in West Bengal are tripartite in nature, whereas it is bipartite in Assam where the government is not a party. The long-term understanding with the INTUC-affiliated ACMS has given the Assam employers a clear domination and stranglehold over the industry. Officially, there is no labour unrest, industrial relations peaceful and ACMS, understandably, ‘co-operates with the industry’. In West Bengal, any demand by the workers and the unions, termed unfair by the industry, is either flatly rejected, or is repeatedly discussed by the tea industry in a series of consultations, a delaying tactic mainly, until the unions are fed up and ask the government to intervene. All the agreements that have been drawn up at the intervention of the state government, have favoured the employers and not the workers. Like the aftermath of last year’s strike and the eventual agreement, there is a lot of resentment amongst the workers, but the very threat to their survival forces them to keep quiet and accept the verdict. For a tea plantation worker, whose forefathers were indentured immigrants, and were born and brought up inside the tea gardens, dismissal means not only the loss of livelihood but a threat to their general existence. With no familial connection with their original homeland, they have nowhere to go, nowhere to work, once they are turned out of their gardens. They are forced to choose a life of meek acceptance.

It is therefore very clear that beyond a point even the phenomenon of an hundred per cent unionisation does not matter much. A trade union exists much more at a micro level, at the plantation unit level, where their existence helps the tea workers, otherwise secluded and isolated from the mainstream, at least, to address their daily needs. The trade unions have been their only link with the outside world. At a more macro level, the trade unions have contributed much less. One reason could be the absence of leaders from the working community itself. The trade unions in West Bengal are mostly controlled by the Bengali Bhadralok who do not even work in the tea gardens. Very few of the central office bearers are from the tea industry or from the workers themselves. At the plantation level, leaders are mostly from the sub-staff, who belong to the same ethnic groups as the workers, but are supervisors by occupation. Going by the hierarchical set-up of the tea plantations, they command a large group of workers from their own ethnic group and are in-charge of them. Due to the internal organisational set-up of the plantations and ethnic solidarity, these sub-staff command a very strong loyalty of the workers under them. It is quite possible that this organisational dynamics has been very consciously incorporated into the organisational dynamics of the labour unions. So, the trade unions have to only make an effort to initiate the people from the sub-staff level into their organisations. The workers will follow suit.

In Assam, ACMS works under a strong political stranglehold of the Congress(I). But, the leaders are from the tea community, again, the sub-staff. The same phenomenon is observed in other trade unions also. Of course, the Assamese here do not aspire to be the leaders of the tea plantation unions. The unions are not representative of the women workers either. Women, as a whole, are the back-bone of the plantation economy and social life. The majority of the workers are women. Any change in the organisation of work and economy in a plantation affects them first and foremost. Similarly, the women also remain the potential agents for any change likely to come in an enclave economy like that of the plantations.

With the institution of labour laws and the PLA in the tea plantation industry, it is the women who have been the prime target of deprivation and exploitation. Ten years before, they were paid less than the men. They have been subjected to long working hours and heavy workload. Even the pregnant women are not spared from activities like deep hoeing. The profit-hungry industry has been slowly marginalising the women. The majority of the temporary workers, today, are women. For them, social welfare benefits under PLA including maternity and medical benefits do not exist. The permanent women workers are also discriminated or against. Their parents, husbands are not regarded as dependants. Their husbands are not entitled to subsidised foodgrains and medical benefits. And, these practices are not only perpetrated by tea companies under the government undertakings or private sector only, the track record of some of the multinational tea giants like Unilever, Williamson Magor and McLeod Russel is no different. They are all party to the sin of employing forced labour and not allowing a free labour market to develop thus rendering tea labour unfree.

The trade unions in the tea industry are operating under the same hierarchical and organisational set up master-minded and practiced by the planters right from the colonial days. Beyond a point, logic says that they will never be able to confront the tea industry to struggle for the betterment and uplift of the tea workers. The trade unions have to understand this and have to undergo a major organisational change to survive and be able to discharge their responsibilities towards the tea plantation workers.

Trade unions have to emerge as a much stronger force in a milieu where social responsibilities do not exist.

Click here to return to the September 2000 index.