Up to 400,000 tea plantation workers in Assam, in northeast India, went on strike on Wednesday to demand higher pay.
The workers in Assam – which accounts for over half of India’s tea production –are calling for an increase in daily pay from about US$2 to US$4.75 (350 rupees), unions and activists said.
The strike follows recent protests including a human chain and bicycle rally amid growing unrest over wages with a government state committee set up in 2018 to examine the issue.
Current wages for plantation workers ranges from 145 to 167 rupees in different parts of Assam.
India’s tea industry, the second largest in the world after China’s, employs 3.5 million workers, many of whom are subject to labour abuses and live in poverty on the estates where they work.
“I can’t afford to lose even one day’s wages but there is no choice but to strike and raise my voice now,” said Prem Kranti, who has worked as a tea plucker for 15 years in Assam.
“If we have to eat well, take care of our children and survive the rising cost of everything, we need more money. How can we survive on what we get? It is a pittance,” the 36-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
Assam labour officials said the recommendations of a one-man state committee on proposed wages had recently been circulated among tea workers and plantation owners to seek their feedback.
“The wage suggested by the committee is lower than what workers were expecting,” said J.B. Ekka, principle secretary of Assam’s labour welfare department. He did not give details about the proposed amount and the committee’s report is not public.
“We are committed to resolving this issue at the earliest and ensuring that workers get their dues,” Ekka added.
Indian Tea Association secretary general ArijitRaha said the trade body – whose members account for more than 60% of the country’s production – was waiting for officials to set a wage.
“This is not in our hands,” Raha said.
The striking workers have also called for better health and education facilities for their families. Estate owners often justify low wages because of the benefits they are legally required to provide from housing to healthcare, tea experts say.
Yet research in Assam by Britain’s Sheffield University in 2018 found that few of these facilities were in fact provided.
Bibek Das, secretary of the Assam Sangrami Chah Shramik Sangh – a tea worker union with 45,000 members – said the impact of the coronavirus pandemic had left labourers in a “more precarious situation” due to the rising cost of essentials.
“The government has given the (tea) industry a lot of subsidies but nothing for workers,” Das said.
India’s tea production in the first half of 2020 fell 26.4% from a year ago to 348.26 million kilograms (kg) as heavy floods and COVID-19 movement restrictions curbed output, the state-run Tea Board said last month. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)