‘Tea Plantation Workers’ Living and Working Conditions in India: Can Things Change?’

A Talk by Mr. Sushovan Dhar

A talk on tea plantation workers in India by Mr. Sushovan Dhar, was hosted by SSA on 8 September 2015, under the title Tea Plantation Workers’ Living and Working Conditions in India: Can Things Change? Mr. Dhar is a trade unionist in West Bengal engaged in organising efforts on tea plantations, in the informal sector and among contractual workers.
Mr. Dhar’s presentation concentrated on the tea ‘gardens’ (or plantations) of West Bengal and to a lesser extent, Assam. According to him, in terms of compensation for labour, the situation of these workers is worse than workers of even the informal sector, notwithstanding the fact that tea is considered an organised industry in India. Mr. Dhar observed that wage increments are done in a manner that formalises exploitation by suppressing wages. For instance, he pointed out between 1987-2014 eight tripartite wage agreements were concluded in the industry. The wage increment given in three agreements out of the eight, was much lower than the rate of inflation for the corresponding period. Two agreements barely took care of the inflation and in the remaining three, they were just above the rate of inflation.
According to a study carried out by the Department of Labour, Government of West Bengal in 2013, it was revealed that the Plantation Labour Act of 1951 (which makes it legally mandatory for plantation workers to be provided with basic facilities such as schools and hospitals) is being violated at will, Mr. Dhar noted. He pointed out that the drawback of this act was that not only the provision, but the management of the facilities is entrusted with the plantation owners. Since any expenditure on labour welfare under this act, impacts the profitability of the owners, the latter has an incentive to violate the Act. Additionally, a fee of merely 400 Indian Rupees is charged for such violation, which employers are willing to pay in exchange for the profit they sustain by violating the Act.
He further noted that the lowest level of the industry consisting of “unskilled labour” is made up mostly of members of tribal communities and people of other marginalised ethnicities, most of whom are women. Exploitation is further perpetuated at this level by employing more female workers because they are traditionally paid less than their male counterparts.
Estate labour is perpetuated, and their upward mobility arrested, by the condition that at least one member of the family has to be employed in estate labour if the line house is to be retained.
Further, Mr. Dhar said that tea lobby is very powerful in India and it is hard to counter their campaigns to ensure minimum living wages for the workers. rate. Also according to Mr. Dhar, unions became toothless and remained subservient to the ruling parties when the Left was in power between 1977-2011. Instead of militant working class centres they were transformed into defenders of the government and by implication protectors of the owners’ interests.
The session was followed by a discussion concerning the situation of Indian as well as Sri Lankan tea estate workers, a comparison of the legislation pertaining to tea estate labour in these two countries, and some critical thoughts and observations regarding exploitation of the working class and its numerous manifestations.

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