Tea workers in India face problems of child labor, gender discrimination, and wage theft.

The current labor conditions in India’s tea industry are a direct result of a long history of colonialism and repression of adivasi (aboriginal workers). Tea workers experience a myriad of labor issues, ranging from child and forced labor to gender discrimination. 

Immiseration and Forced Labor: A wide gap between incomes and expenditure has been the cause of severe indebtedness among tea workers. A combination of high income-expenditure gap high interest rates from plantation owners has created the conditions for forced labour. This cycle of indebtedness is further intensified by the caste-kinship-language relationship that creates oppressive conditions of bondage and forced labour. Despite acute hunger and immiseration workers remain in the plantations and are unable to flee, resulting in several hundred instances of starvation deaths .

Child Labor: The income-expenditure gap and the resulting indebtedness is the reason for the re-emergence of child labour in tea plantations, both inside and outside the plantations. Dropout rates among children is extraordinarily high for tea families, despite the free mid-day meals provided at schools. The rate is highest in the age category between 11-17 years, which is when children are considered ‘employable’ as domestic workers, construction workers, and in unregulated factories and shops. Furthermore, a language barrier for adivasi children (who belong to tea families) in the government schools has proved to be a disincentive to remain in school for the adivasi children.

Gender Discrimination: Gender division in the nature of work performed by men and women in plantations in Kerala, India has created a stark difference in wages between genders. On an average, men, performing non-leaf-plucking tasks, earn almost double the hourly wage of women, who are engaged in plucking. The imposed skill ceiling for women workers has caused extremely low wages for them.

Benefits: Benefits that should be provided to tea workers in West Bengal, including schools, medical benefits, subsidized food rations, and drinking water, has been transferred to the government from the plantation owners.  

Low Wages and High Quotas: Due to a lack of investment in the estates by tea plantation owners and a requirement that only the best leaves be plucked, workers often find themselves unable to meet the production quotas that are required for them to obtain their base wage. Low wages and high quotas have forced both women (who make up the majority of the pluckers) and aged workers to bring in children to assist them in plucking leaves to meet the productivity quota. Furthermore, the incentive to produce more than the set quota when workers are able to surpass it is so meager that pluckers look for work elsewhere to supplement their incomes.

Key to ILRF’s strategy for improving the lives and working conditions of tea workers in India is strengthening unions. ILRF works with unions in India to address concerns of gender discrimination, low pay, child labor, and debt bondage.