THIRST for Perspective – notes on an Indian tea tour

THIRST for Perspective – notes on an Indian tea tour
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During my three week Indian tea industry tour in January this year, I travelled from the urban powerhouses of Delhi and Kolkata to the mountains of Darjeeling through the plains of West Bengal to the hills of Kerala. I attended a Fairtrade Premium Committee meeting in Kerala, a trade union consultation in West Bengal, and a tea tasting session in Kolkata… I met with tea pluckers, CEOs, trade union leaders, NGO activists, supervisors, managers, drivers, brokers, company owners, labourers, a nurse and a night watchman…

Hearing and seeing all these different perspectives was enormously valuable – even though it seemed that almost every perspective contradicted the last one! For example, a manager told me with pride that workers’ children have the security of “inheriting” their parents’ jobs and houses when they retire; but an NGO representative’s perspective was that “Workers have to ‘give their children’ whether they want to or not – it’s known as ‘budlee’ or replacement, otherwise when you retire you have to vacate the house that your family has lived in for 100 years and lose retirement benefits.”

Of course, each perspective has its own truth – or elements of it at least. But the overwhelming picture was the familiar one from the many media exposés, academic studies and NGO reports of the past few years. Despite the well-meaning efforts of many tea plantation owners and managers, despite tripartite wage negotiation, certification and the mandated benefits of the Plantation Labour Act – the rights of tea workers from Darjeeling to my birthplace, Munnar, were very clearly not all being realised.

Their houses were too small for their growing families; their income was too low to meet their basic living costs; their children’s education was too poor quality and their healthcare was too basic and did not reach everyone in the community (I was told more than once by tea workers in West Bengal that “The [estate] hospital is just for show”). The women had too much work and too little pay, the men had too little employment and even less pay, the elderly had too little support, the children had too few prospects… One company director admitted “The tea worker is a bonded labourer – he is a slave – there’s no other word for it. The manager is king”.

A trade union leader hears tea workers’ grievances: a retired tea plucker hasn’t been receiving her rations

The perspective of tea company owners and managers helped to broaden the picture. It is all too easy to put all the blame for workers’ hardships on them. No doubt some are very much to blame, caring more for profit than the wellbeing of their workers, and so ruthlessly exploiting them, but many are doing their best to survive in a punishingly difficult commercial climate, while striving to keep their workforce healthy and happy. Producers may be helping to maintain the oppressive system established a decade and a half ago by India’s colonial rulers, but they are also still trapped within it themselves.

And within that system, producers are dealing with multiple pressures; traders, brands and retailers negotiate aggressively for the lowest prices, but do not guarantee long term sales contracts; governments impose taxes, commandeer land for roads and pylons with woefully inadequate compensation (in West Bengal)– yet treat tea plantations like a “separate country,” requiring the company to provide benefits that it (the government) provides to its other citizens “Estates typically have population of approximately 10,000 people of which only 2,000 are working for the estate, yet the company is responsible for all of them,”  said one company director.

Uprooted tea bushes make way for pylons – with minimal compensation

Trade unions push for higher and higher wages (although another perspective is that they are in cahoots with companies to keep wages low); meanwhile, the tea market is being flooded with low cost, low quality tea from other countries and from increasing numbers of small tea growers… and on top of all that, every couple of years there’s another exposé painting producers as villainous overlords enslaving and crushing their workers underfoot. Hearing their perspective, I started to understand why they can be somewhat defensive in the face of criticism.

Their defence often takes the form of pointing out how much better off their employees are than others, the much lower quality of housing in the poorer Indian states and to poor employment practices in other industries – such as construction – which often provides no benefits at all to workers, not even regular work. “Other farmers in India are committing suicide, ours are not,” one manager reminded me. But, the fact that some are worse off than tea workers doesn’t justify denying them their right to the internationally agreed standards of working and living enshrined in instruments like the ILO conventions and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

So, what do producers need to enable them to fulfil their workers’ rights? A decent price for their tea would be a start.

Everyone expects tea to be cheap. As one tea company owner pointed out;“Nobody would say proudly ‘Hey, I’m wearing really cheap perfume!’ or ‘I only drink really cheap whisky’. It’s marketing that has made cheap tea something to aspire to.”  Nevertheless, big money is being made at the packaging and marketing end of the tea value chain. Yet somehow this big money doesn’t reach the farms and plantations in proportionate measure… and so naturally, it doesn’t reach their employees. A tea plucker told me, “Carpenters get Rs 800, masons get Rs 1000, even a coffee maker gets Rs 400  – why should pluckers only get Rs 300 (approximately GBP 3.00) a day?”  

And even less of it reaches the small tea growers –more and more small plots are being turned over to tea (despite land registry rules protecting land meant for food production). One perspective that I heard was that small tea growers are the future, and  need support to get better prices for their products;  another was that that many of them are not smallholders at all, but traders who get rich by buying up large tracts of land in small parcels in the names of different family members, friends, maids, drivers etc. Furthermore, they are free of the regulations binding plantations… or are able to operate under the radar.

70-80% of all tea workers are women “…because we are easier to boss” one tea plucker told me wryly.  A tea company director I met described women as “the backbone of the industry.”  But it is a backbone that is bearing a great weight – both the literal weight of the tea sacks they carry up and down steep hillsides, and the weight of responsibility for earning enough to feed their families and educate their children out of the tea sector. Like women workers everywhere they also face verbal abuse and discrimination. A trade union leader told me women and girls from plantations in West Bengal are at risk of sex trafficking to big cities.

But enough of this doom and gloom. Because I did also see and hear of several promising initiatives to change the status quo. Like the company that had started a partial profit-sharing scheme with regular workers during high season in Darjeeling; or companies that were providing land and training to enable workers to supplement their income from tea plucking during low season; and several who were enhancing healthcare and education with the Fairtrade premium[1]. I learned of new business models being tried out; worker-owned companies with participatory management systems and co-operatives diversifying tea cultivation alongside other crops and income sources. Fairtrade, organic and bio-dynamic certification were helping to make improvements for workers as well as boosting demand from countries like Germany and the UK. And I also heard of promising government initiatives on education, wages, bonuses and land ownership.

I had the opportunity of attending this Fairtrade Premium Committee meeting

My very last meeting on the very last day of my tour was with Rajeshwari Jolly – General Secretary of Pempila Orumai – Unity of Women. This women tea workers’ trade union came into being after Rajeshwari and her colleagues rose up against male trade unionists, management and politicians in 2015 demanding the full 20% bonus they had been expecting all year, and which was under threat. They also demanded better pay and living and working conditions. We met in one of the three rooms of her house, where she and her daughter sleep on the floor, while her husband and son sleep on the bed. She was tired after a long and strenuous day plucking tea to support her family, but there was a fire and determination in her eyes that showed she would not let anything hold her back.

Rajeshwari Jolly, General Secretary of Pempilai Orumai (Unity of Women) trade union.

At the time of what I call the ‘uprising’, the women were not officially allowed to participate in wage negotiations as they were not a formal trade union. Now they have registered as a trade union, but as they only have 240 members, they still do not have the ear of management. I wonder what it will take for their voices to be heard?

I asked all my interviewees what they thought THIRST could do to help make the industry a better environment for workers like Rajeshwari and her colleagues. They said it could be a repository for information, facilitating knowledge sharing between stakeholders in different parts of the country and with other countries; they said it could lobby the industry, governments, consumers and certifiers in order to create a more enabling environment for workers to attain their rights; and they said it could be a bridge between different sections of the tea value chain and its stakeholders to try to help overcome the mutual distrust and misunderstanding that has built up over the industry’s 150 year history.

The first-hand information and grass-roots contacts I was able to gain on this trip will feed in to a more in-depth study of the state of the global tea industry. That study will inform how THIRST, and the civil society actors it will bring together, can best help the industry transform the lives of tea workers, farmers and their communities for the better – and in so doing, transform the industry itself for the better.

If Pempilai Orumai is the unity of women, THIRST aims to be the unity of all those – including grass roots organisations like Pempilai Orumai – seeking to usher the tea sector into the 21st century, making it healthy, thriving, humane and fair– and to empower the millions of women and men that make the tea industry possible to demand their rights and be fully and meaningfully heard.


[1] There were some lessons to be learned about how the Fairtrade premium could be used to better address the fundamental needs of tea workers and their families; I’m discussing these with Fairtrade International, who are in the process of reviewing their Hired Labour Standards for tea.

Image shows Tea pluckers take a break and wait for the tea they’ve plucked to be weighed before heading back to work