20 September 2016

Women Tea Workers Come Calling

Fifty women from the closed tea gardens of Duncans recently marched into the corridors of powers in Kolkata on a two-day trip to ask for their rights and to highlight the plight of their co-workers, families and gardens.

As one of the world’s leading tea producer and exporter, India’s tea industry employs more than 1.2 million people. Two regions, Assam and Bengal, produce over 70% of India’s tea and are also home to the worst working conditions for the tea plantation workers in the country. In contrast to the images of tranquil, lush green tea gardens presented to the consumers, tea plantation workers are paid poverty wages and endure appalling working conditions. Women, who make up 70% of the workforce, are especially affected.

In this context, a more complex situation has arisen in North Bengal —15 tea estates owned by one of the premier tea companies, Duncans Industries Private Limited, are in a state of limbo. They are neither closed nor open in the usual sense of the terms, with frightening consequences for the workers on the estates. The Central government, with its eye on the Assembly elections, got the Tea Board to take over 7 of these estates — all in the same Assembly constituency — just days before the elections.

They gained from the decision as the constituency has a BJP MLA now. The losers have been the workers in these gardens, with neither Duncans nor the State government nor the Tea Board willing to take responsibility for their conditions. 

The situation has added one more chapter in the shameful history of hunger in the tea industry. Apart from hunger, and being deprived of their livelihood, all of a sudden for no fault of their own, these women are now battling with the lack of basic amenities like water and electricity, lack of any primary health or education facilities. They have been forced into harmful and insecure odd jobs available nearby. Coupled with high rates of migration by the youth and the men of the gardens, the women have been left alone to tackle threats from the local mafia and goons, which is on the rise as these mischievous groups have been encroaching on the tea garden property and resources. 

While many workers have come together to form groups and start plucking by themselves, harassment from all quarters, ranging from middlemen to contractors, is rapidly destroying both the minimum chances of these women to survive and the huge areas of tea bushes, as the lush green tea gardens turn into jungles and women become invisible subjects of injustice.

With neither the government nor the management actively setting out to solve their plight, the women took the resolve of coming all the way from the north of the state to meet and request early effective intervention by the authorities.

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