Indian tea workers' conditions remain very poor

Justin Rowlatt
South Asia correspondent

  • Published
A woman picks tea outside Siliguri, in West BengalImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The traditional image of tea workers can mask the very difficult conditions some face

If you are drinking tea, I suggest you put down the cup right now because I've got bad news for you.

You can forget those pretty pictures of happy women in saris on rolling green hillsides that you see on some tea packets. That is not the reality for most tea workers.

Last year, I was part of a BBC team that revealed the appalling conditions for workers and their families on estates that grow tea for some of the biggest brands in the world.

Media caption,

The BBC's Justin Rowlatt investigated living conditions on tea estates in Assam

Our findings in the Indian state of Assam prompted the companies that own Tetley's, Twinings, Liptons, PG Tips and Yorkshire Tea to say they would work to improve conditions on the estates they buy from in India.

But this week, the World Bank confirmed standards in the industry remain dire.

It published a report on the second biggest tea producer in India, a company almost 50% controlled by Tata, the giant Indian multinational that owns the Tetley Tea brand.

The report says low wages and poor living and working conditions for the 155,000 people who live on the vast estates owned by Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL) are leading to high levels of malnutrition and ill health.

That is exactly what we found on the estates we visited last year.

Image caption,
Workers told the BBC they had been asking management to fix living conditions for years
Image caption,
Toilets were often clogged, and workers said their only option was to go outside

Plantation owners in India are obliged by law to provide and maintain adequate houses and sanitary toilets for workers, yet we found tea workers living in homes with leaking roofs and terrible sanitation.

Many families had no toilets and said they had no choice but to defecate among the tea bushes.

We found living and working conditions so bad, and wages so low, that tea workers and their families were left malnourished and vulnerable to fatal illnesses.

The joint investigation by BBC News and BBC Radio 4's File on Four programme also found a shocking disregard for health and safety, with workers spraying chemicals without protection, and on some estates, children working alongside adults.

This week's World Bank report was a damning indictment of the efforts of its own subsidiary, International Finance Corporation (IFC), to improve living standards for tea workers.

Through the IFC, the World Bank invested $7.8m (£6.3m) to take a 20% stake in APPL back in 2009.

The idea was to support an attempt to make tea workers part-owners of the estates where they work, in an effort to preserve jobs and raise standards in the industry.

Image source, Empics
Image caption,
"Diseases of poverty" are common among estate workers in Assam

But according to the findings of a two-year investigation by the internal auditor that holds the World Bank Group accountable to its own policies, the IFC has failed on almost every count.

The investigation found that the bank had failed "to respond systematically to issues regarding housing and living conditions" or to correct serious lapses in the use of pesticides, "with the result that workers have been exposed to extremely hazardous chemicals".

It said that low wages contributed to workers' acute malnutrition and exposure to disease, quoting a 2014 report commissioned by Tata that found daily wages at the time so low that workers were unable to afford basic nutritional requirements.

It found that provision of healthcare and education was inadequate, and workers' rights to unionise and air their grievances were not met.

Media caption,

Evidence of child labour being used on some Indian tea plantations

The investigation also concluded that the World Bank had not done enough to ensure child labour was not being used, nor had it responded adequately to workers' complaints that they were being pushed into the share ownership scheme.

"The report validates concerns workers have been raising for years about poor living and working conditions on APPL plantations, and shows how the World Bank Group and APPL repeatedly failed to fulfil their obligations," said Wilfred Topno, director of PAD, one of three organisations that complained to the World Bank on behalf of workers.

The IFC has accepted many of the report's findings. It says it has drawn up an action plan with Tata Global Beverages "to address shortcomings and legacy issues in key areas such as human health, worker health and safety, housing and sanitation infrastructure".

Tata, which prides itself on its commitment to corporate social responsibility, says it is "deeply concerned" about the issues at APPL, and supports the company's efforts to improve the living and working conditions of workers.

The companies say they commissioned an independent inquiry into living and working conditions on the APPL estates in 2014 and began to address the problems then.

Now they say they will engage an independent organisation to audit the progress of improvements and assess how effective efforts are.

But everyone involved in the tea industry recognises that tackling poverty and ill health will be very difficult.

Image source, Getty Images

Tea workers are trapped in a cycle of dependence that began way back when the first tea estates were planted in India in the 1830s.

Very little has changed since then, says Anirudha Nagar, of Accountability Counsel, an organisation supporting the APPL workers.

"With housing tied to their job, they are practically held hostage by their employer," he says.

"With abysmally low wages, they face a daily struggle to survive and have no means for advancement. And with poor access to education, their children are left with no option but to become workers themselves."

So what can be done? Here is what campaigners such as Anirudha Nagar want to see happen.

First, pick up that cup of tea again. The answer is not to stop drinking tea.

But campaigners argue that tea is just too cheap. They say the big brands need to pay fairer prices to plantations so they in turn can afford decent wages and conditions for workers.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Campaigners argue tea consumers can play a key lobbying role

They also want a bigger role for unions and NGOs. Tea plantations have traditionally restricted union membership, and sometimes ban NGOs from operating on their estates. They want that to change so workers can know their rights and be able to articulate their demands clearly and effectively.

And campaigners believe tea lovers can help too, by using their voice and influence to keep companies honest.

They want consumers to tell tea companies that conditions of the workers matter to them, and to challenge their favourite brand about what it is doing to ensure that its employees have decent homes and enough money to buy nutritious food.

And once you've sent that text, email or tweet, put the kettle back on. You will have earned yourself a nice cup of tea.

You can listen to the original File on 4 investigation into conditions in tea plantations on the Radio 4 website.

Around the BBC