The real cost of a cuppa

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It’s the world’s favourite beverage:  Tea – the cornerstone of empires and a multi-billion dollar industry, but what is the real human cost of a cuppa?

The north eastern Indian state of Assam is almost synonymous for its earthy, liquor like tea.  It produces more than half the tea in India, and a sixth of the global tea market, employing nearly a fifth of the state’s population. More than 5 million people in the state live off the industry. 

Ex Tea Garden Workers

The British imported waves of workers from poorer states around India in the 19th century, laying the basis for the ethnic mélange that makes up Assam’s tea garden culture these days – a not altogether happy mix, which has bred rivalries and even conflict.

It is a society comprising of more than 100 castes and sub castes, including adhivasis or tribals from the region. To make matters more complicated there is a separate identity group known as the ex tea garden workers, whose ancestors moved away from the plantations but who still carry the name officially. The denomination is written on their ‘caste certificates’ – the documents needed to apply to the quotas set aside for lower castes.

College teacher Rameshwar Kurmi comes from one of these ex tea garden worker families, and has worked hard to be able to leap over the caste and class divide. “Isn’t it insulting to be identified after a crop?” he asks, “would you name someone as an ex rubber worker? And then write that on their identity card in place of ethnicity?”

India’s tea gardens are regulated by the Plantations Labour Act of 1951 which essentially leaves all control and responsibility for the estate and its workers directly under the jurisdiction of the managers.  In effect this means that each garden is a kind of fiefdom, its conditions depending entirely on the benevolence or otherwise of its management.

The human cost
Tea is a global multi-billion dollar industry, but there is little knowledge of what it takes to bring the famous two leaves and a bud to our cups. This is partly because of the geographical remoteness of the tea gardens and partly because tea garden owners and managers tend to keep visitors strictly monitored.

Sandeep Ghosh, secretary of ABITA, the Assam Branch of the Indian Tea Association, says that planters are aware of consumers' increasing demands for fair trade practices and there’s peer group pressure amongst the tea gardens themselves to provide good conditions for workers. “They have free rent, every garden has a clinic, they get maternity leave, a provident fund and a subsidized grain ration that hasn’t gone up one paise since we instituted it,” he says, calculating these non cash benefits at Rs 173 per day.

However these services are only for the ‘permanent’ workers, most of whom inherit the status from a family member who dies or retires.  No one knows the exact number of ‘temporary’ tea workers who survive on just the daily wages, which are low even by Indian standards.  An average daily wage labourer can expect to earn Rs200-300 a day, (2.90-4.30 euros) but a tea plucker earns Rs.84, or about 1.20 euros for an eight-hour day, and is expected to pick at least 23 kilos of tea.  If they don’t, then 55 paise (.007 cents) is deducted per kilo.  If they pick over the limit, they earn .016 cents per kilo. 

Sailendra Goswami, manager of the Muttuck Tea Esatate, is a large man with a porcupine thatch of jet black hair.  The estate has the reputation of being one of the best run in the region.  But Goswami says that he loses 20% of his workforce to absenteeism.  “The workers,” he complains, “want the services provided to permanent tea garden workers, but then disappear to pick up work somewhere else in town or on the railroad.”

The 'coolie lines'
Estate managers are keen to show off their onsite clinics and immaculate factory floors where the leaves are withered, dried and sorted, but it’s a lot harder to get to the workers lines – where the pluckers live.
I finally manage to dodge watchful eyes and get to one of these mini-communities on the outskirts of Dibrugarh, the most important tea town in Upper Assam.

Rickety huts house 100 families sharing three water pumps.  The heat, which has been punching at our chests all day, has subsided only to allow swarms of mosquitoes to nosedive for any sliver of human skin on offer.  A hole in the overgrown back gardens does for a latrine, there is no electricity, no paved roads, and a palpable taste of hopelessness in the air.

It’s the fortnightly payday and Bhagrirathi, 45, has just returned from the market with a plastic bag of rice.  The much touted subsidized grain rations are not enough to last the week for her family, and she has to buy more on the open market every time she’s paid.  She’s a tiny exhausted 40-kilo wisp of humanity, and the only permanent worker in the family.  Her husband earns intermittent day wages as a mason.
Her two children go to school but they too are destined for a life in the tea garden.  “Where else would they go?” she asks bewildered at the idea that there may be an alternative.  According to some estimates tea garden workers have an average lifespan of 50 years, and Bhagrirathi doesn’t look like she’s going to defeat that statistic.

Tea garden work – like most plantation work around the world – often goes by the moniker of modern-day slavery. There have been stories in the past of workers dropping dead of starvation, of women dying because of being forced into work too soon after childbirth.  The only recourse that workers have is to strike, but that’s usually met by a lock out from the part of management – a drastic situation for people feeding themselves from their day’s work.

NGOs and organizations like ABITA are defensive about present-day conditions, claiming that things are greatly improved these days, and the worst conditions are in “sick units” – gardens with especially bad management.