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Tea workers in India still suffer with low pay & poor conditions

By Stephanie Dearing     Nov 14, 2009 in World
Next time you're settling in for a nice hot cuppa', you may not want to think about this story. It might turn your cozy tea experience into a bit of a fright.
If you drink Tetley Tea, this story might spoil your favourite hot drink. Tetley, owned by Tata Tea, is a member of the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), an organization that seeks to improve the lives of tea workers. According to the ETP, its "standard covers both social and environmental issues. The fundamental principles of the ETP standard are those of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) Base Code which is closely based on International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions. The ETP standard ensures protection for workers in the following areas: wages and benefits, occupational health & safety, working hours, freedom of association, child and casual labour. It forbids any form of forced labour, discrimination and harsh and inhumane treatment."
But the IUF, an international union that represents food workers, claims that one of the tea plantations partly owned by Tetley/Tata, is treating its 1,000 employees badly. A long-running lockout of employees by the management of the Nowera Nuddy Tea Estate means employees have not seen any pay since August, when the first lock-out took place. After a negotiated agreement to allow workers to return to work, a second lock-out started on September 14 and is still ongoing. Tetley, the IUF claims, is starving 6,500 people by locking out the 1,000 employees at Norwera.
It's a complicated issue, as most labour issues are, but the roots of this issue extend deeply into India's plantation history. Plantations were popular during the English rule of India. "The conditions of labour in plantation economies, as historic evidence points out, have always been a matter of concern. Coercion and super-exploitation have always been the characteristics of the plantation economies," wrote author Souparna Lahiri. That history has been hard to shake off and tea workers in India are low-paid, are not treated very well by their employers and lack adequate facilities such as safe drinking water. Poverty and its sisters, starvation and malnutrition appear to be a normal part of life for the tea worker, who typically lives in an agriculturally lush and economically productive region.
Tea workers in Assam India
Tea workers in Assam, India.
Mukesh Jain
The issue at Nowera got started in August when a very pregnant woman was denied maternity leave by the Nowera doctor. Things took a turn for the worse, a group of upset workers allegedly assaulted the company doctor, and the management shut down the plantation. A negotiated return to work failed when workers disagreed with the management over disciplinary measures for the workers alleged to have assaulted the doctor; and the management closed the plantation again on September 14. The plantation remains closed.
The issue is serving to draw world attention to the fact that the employees at Nowera are only paid 62.50 rupees a day, which equals $1.35 U.S. The IUF claims that Tetley Tea is starving the 1,000 workers at Nowera into submission. Such tactics are no strangers to managers of India's tea plantations, despite laws which enshrine the rights of tea workers. The IUF wants Tetley to uphold the Ethical Tea Partnership.
Tata Tea has said nothing about the ongoing dispute at Nowera. The corporation is intently focused on broadening its markets throughout the world, and is moving its headquarters to London England. Tata is seeking to reposition itself in the global beverages market by selling healthy beverages, changing its name and revising its organizational structure.
Part of this strategy has seen the acquisition of other beverage companies. Another part of Tata's positioning strategy has seen the corporation sell off most of its shares in the management of tea plantations in Northern India in 2007, although it kept a fractional ownership. The sale affected the Nowera Nuddy Estate, which is partly owned by Amalgamated Plantations Ltd..
Tata Tea's Chief Executive Officer pulls in a sweet $1.8 million a year, while the Chief Financial Officer grosses $9.2 million a year. Tata posted an increase in its quarterly net revenues in September 2009. It's next report will be issued on January 28, 2010.
In 2007, the Guardian reported "... at least 700 Indian tea workers have died from diseases linked to malnutrition in the last year after 16 estates were closed. Investigations by the supreme court and tea workers' associations found that the workers laid off could find no other work and legal provisions for health and support payments never materialised." The lay-offs were forced by a drop in world tea prices. The Tata Group, however, posted a growth in profits during the 2007-2008 fiscal year. There are other companies which grow tea in India, such as Unilever, which owns the Thomas J. Lipton Tea Company, the world's largest tea company.
More about Tetley tea, Tata tea, Lipton tea, Tea plantations, India
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