1. The Problem
Assam is the largest tea growing region in the world. The tropical rainforest climate contributes to Assam's unique malty taste, making Assam tea well known around the globe. In 16 out of the 33 districts in Assam state, tea is being cultivated. There are about 950 tea estates, housing approximately 6 million people which accounts for 20% of the state’s population. Tea gardens communities are mainly Adivasi communities who have been living and working in tea gardens for generations. They remain marginalized due to the planned exclusion from the outer world, their sole dependence upon working in the tea gardens, and poor implementation of government schemes inside the tea estates.
Small Tea Growers
The plantations are governed by the Plantation Labour Act 1951, but the labor welfare measures envisaged in this act are not implemented properly as the interpretation was left to the mercy of the companies running those plantations. In the last three decades a new segment called the Small Tea Growers (STGs) came to the fore, mushrooming to more than 200,000. These are small in both size and labor capacity, with family of STG owners working as laborers alongside with other laborers. At the same time they are the largest private sector in the state and contribute a huge proportion to the state’s economy.
The small plantations in Assam are individual holdings often run by young people (below 35 years) and not governed by any particular law. The Theory of Change highlights the problematic where STGs often ignore human and labor rights of their workers in their pursuance of optimizing their profits. Infringements on the access to fair working conditions for women and men, and child rights violations are evident in their business operations or in the supply chain.
So while STGs are very important employment providers to a diverse labor force on the one hand, they also are responsible for human rights violations in the realm of labor rights and fair wage issues. They often don’t provide basic services at the workplace, such as clean water, toilets, safety equipment and child care. This leads to negative human rights impacts on the most marginalized sections, especially women and children, who are dependent on the work in this industry.
- Business challenges
It is also important to look at this from the viewpoint of the STGs, which reveals that they themselves are facing several challenges in their business operations. The main problems faced by the STGs are identified as:
- Lack of organizational and marketing capacity: the multiple layers of dependencies in their unorganized and remote businesses prevents them to realize an optimum price for their produce; making them often suffer from income poverty, and leaving them less scope to invest in the welfare of their workers.
- Lack of technical capacity for optimal tea production, business management and quality improvement.
- Lack of access to finance, market and entrepreneurial ecosystem.
- Lack of awareness about their responsibility for human rights and responsible business showing in e.g. discrimination between men and women in terms of wages.
- Lack of implementation of state regulations and welfare measures (related to the right to access basic services, like health and education).
Hard times for women and girls
Women and adolescent girls constitute more than 90% of the workforce in the labor intensive tea sector and are primarily the tea leaves pluckers. Apart from the household chores, they work long days (> 10 hours) in the tea gardens for generally lower wages than their male counterparts. The very hard work goes on even during pregnancy and the maternity period without any maternity leave or benefits. They are exploited in several ways due to lack of awareness, information and knowledge. The tea gardens’ study quoted earlier, indicated that women working in the tea gardens are pathetic and they are much behind the men in social, economic and political situations.