Think, before you have your cup of tea!

Women workers at a tea plantation in Assam (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Women workers at a tea plantation in Assam (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

India is the second largest tea producer in the world, with production at 1.2 million metric tons in 2014. There are 563.98 thousand hectares of tea plantations in India and the states of Assam (304.40 thousand hectares), followed by West Bengal (140.44 thousand hectares), Tamil Nadu (69.62 thousand hectares) and Kerala (35.01 thousand hectares) lead in tea production in the country.

Tea comes from the plant named Camellia Sinensis that grows at high altitudes. The tea shrub starts to produce leaves after five years, which are then processed and commercialised, and the plant can stay productive for over 100 years.

The tea industry is India‘s second largest employer and employs over 3.5 million people across 1,686 estates and 157,504 smallholdings. Assam and West Bengal are the two main tea growing regions of India. Women form a major workforce in the tea plantations.

Employment in the plantation sector continues to be influenced by the colonial practices that started since the 19th century when British companies forced low caste (Dalits or untouchable caste), poverty-stricken, landless and tribal (Adivasi or Indigenous) populations from central and southern India to work on the plantations. Women formed an importnt group of workers in the process that besides supporting families and looking after children, also had an important role to play in performing select tasks (like plucking) with greater quality.

Even after independence, tea plantations continue to control the lives of their workers with little active involvement by the State. Workers continue to remain landless and marginalised. While a number of studies have looked at the poor conditions of plantation workers in Assam, very less is known about the health and well-being of women workers.

A  study titled "Who will stand up for us?” the social determinants of health of women tea plantation workers in India" published in the journal International Journal for Equity in Health that explored the working conditions and the health needs and perceptions of women tea plantation workers from three plantations in Jorhat district in Assam found that:

Women were overworked and underpaid

While the primary job of women was plucking tea leaves, they were also involved in manual jobs such as pruning the bushes during winter, sprinkling what they called “dry white powder” in the tea bushes (probably urea/pesticide) and included permanent as well as non-permanent workers.

Women were engaged in labour at all times and all days from Monday to Saturday while on Sundays, they supplemented their incomes through informal sector labour like brick kiln work, daily paid agricultural work or domestic work in nearby villages. Besides this, women also had to do household work that involved cooking, cleaning, collecting water and firewood, feeding children etc.

For most women, work began early in the morning at 4 am and ended at around 10 pm, after which they went to sleep. On working days, from 4 am to 7.30 am they would complete household chores and then go to work at 8 am. At work, they would get an hour lunch break from 1 pm to 2 pm, which they sometimes skipped to meet daily plucking targets, continuing to work until 4 pm.

Women workers in private plantations received Rs 126 per day while those in government plantations received Rs 115 as daily wages that were linked to daily work quotas of plucking 24 kg leaves. If they failed to meet this target, there would be wage deductions ranging from Rs 1 to 5 per kg of leaves. The meagre payment that they managed to get was always inadequate to take care of their daily household expenses.

Lack of support, entitlements and social security led to great suffering for women workers

Permanent workers were entitled to housing facilities but a few non-permanent workers were also residing in the labour lines because their husband or a family member was a permanent worker. Housing facilities provided to tea plantation workers in the area were extremely poor with lack of electricity and water connections and inadequate latrines, which forced people to defecate out in the open in the plantation areas.

Women informed that it was difficult for them and children to go out at night and they were thus forced to urinate and defecate in their compound and clean the waste in the morning. Women also complained that plucking leaves got extremely difficult particularly during the monsoons, because of the pervasive smell of human excreta. Those who had latrines at home informed that latrine tanks were not cleaned regularly and that led to overflow of water from the tank. Almost all women across plantations mentioned that their complaints about repairing and renovation went unanswered.

All workers were entitled to receive a total of 6 kg ration - 3 kg rice and 3 kg wheat flour after 12 working days, including children under 16 years of age . However, this was linked with a number of days worked. Almost all women said that they received less than 6 kg, sometimes only 3 kg for 12 working days, which was not sufficient to feed all the members of the household forcing them to buy additional food from nearby shops. While workers having a ration card were entitled to 5 kg of rice per person under the food security programme, non-permanent workers receiving ration from government shops complained that shopkeepers would deduct 2-3 kg per household from the entitlement. Apart from this, ration was not distributed regularly. Also most non- permanent workers in plantations did not have a ration card.

In the context of social security, while permanent women workers were entitled to three month's maternity leave, non-permanent workers had to leave employment. However, even during maternity leave, permanent workers were not given full payment and half of their daily wage was deducted. While primary school was subsidised for children of people working on the plantations, lack of support for education beyond this level led to many dropouts children to not completing school and joining the plantation workforce to supplement their parents earnings.

Voiceless at home and at the place of work: The plight of women

Women’s roles were often found to be confined to their plantation and household work and care of children and elderly. They had very little say at the household level decision making processes. Even at work, women reported neglect at the hands of management and often feared to ask questions or voice their opinions.

This missing voice of women was noted with respect to worker unions as well. Women from government plantations did not participate in worker's unions while very less women from private plantations participated in worker’s unions.  

Poor working conditions affected the physical and mental health of women

Women’s work continued throughout the year and across seasons. Tea plucking did not stop even during monsoon and was especially difficult due to lack of a shelter for lunch break, risk of injuries due to slippery roads. Occupational hazards such as insect bites were common and in the absence of protective gear such as gloves and boots, women often protected themselves by using a locally prepared emollient made of mustard oil, lime and tobacco leaves, which they applied repeatedly.

The workplace did not have latrines nor handwashing facilities and women were forced to urinate and defecate in the plantation area. There was no provision for changing sanitary pads/cloth during menstruation and women were forced to change pads/cloth under tea bushes, and wrapping the used pad/cloth in a polythene bag and keeping it with them.This used cloth was then washed and kept for reuse.

In some private plantations, women would go home to change their menstrual absorbent cloths during lunch break. Lack of clean drinking water and tea were also some of the complaints reported by the women.

While day-care services were to be made available in the plantation area, only one private plantation had fully functional crèche, for which only permanent workers’ children were eligible. In two other plantation estates, the management had designated a bamboo hut (without wall) as crèche with no facilities.

While plantations had a hospital, women were not satisfied with the health services provided due to lack of availability of doctors and medicines. Women often bought medicines from nearby chemist shops for ailments like fever, headache, bodyache. Non-permanent workers were entitled to health services from plantation hospitals for the period they were engaged in plantations. However, they were not entitled to ambulance services.

In contrast, workers in tea plantations covered under Public Private Partnership (PPP), an initiative by the State Health Mission, had access to health services rendered to permanent workers by the plantation hospital. Women were happy with the emergency ambulatory service implemented by the State National Health Mission, and they reported that it had eased transportation of patients to higher health facilities.

Women were generally found to delay seeking health care because cost of being sick involved a day’s wage for non-permanent workers and half a day wage for permanent workers. A number of women consumed alcohol to take care of their aches and pains and were often found to be sad and depressed.

The study makes some recommendations to change the situation of women

  • The state government and tea estate sector needs to move away from colonial-era policies keeping in mind current industry realities and democratic norms and bring about a jurisdictional shift to bring plantation worker’s health, education and other social sectors under the purview of the state through an amendment of the Plantation Labour Act of 1951 to improve the daily living and working condition of workers.
  • There is a need to mandate minimum wages for all workers – temporary and permanent, public and private and prevent unfair deduction of wages if workers are unable to complete their tasks, or take entitled leaves or holidays.
  • Linked government departments such as Education, Tea Tribes, State Rural Livelihood Mission and Assam Skill Development Mission should work together to initiate vocational training of young and old family members of plantation workers and offer higher education scholarships for worker’s children.
  • There is a need to support of women’s participation and representation at workplace and community forums in the plntation sector. Self Help Groups alreday exist in Assam since the late 1990s through a number of centrally funded schemes. These need to be extended through the department of women and child development and/or social welfare to the  plantations with the help of non-governmental organisations.
  • There is an urgent need to transform existing plantation hospitals into health and wellness centres, which need to be based on preventive and promotive health services, along with nutrition interventions, support for alcohol cessation and harm reduction programmes, as well as emphasis on sanitation, hygiene, and occupational safety.

The paper can be accessed here

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