On thursday, at least 400,000 workers in Assam went on strike over the government’s failure to implement a wage hike. The Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association (ATTSA) also staged demonstrations at Biswanath Chariali and Golaghat seeking hikes in wage for tea garden workers, and to receive tribal status for their people.
Assam produces half of India’s annual 1,235 million kgs of tea leaves, and is the biggest private industry in India. It is also the second biggest tea industry in the world. For years these owners have accused of violating fundamental human rights for years; workers are severely underpaid and exploited, have little access to clean water and work in dangerous and highly unsanitary conditions. The workers also don’t a strong labour union.
Their identity as tribal migrants without legal status also makes it easy for employers to exploit them. The workers are decedents of the “coolie workforce” created 150 years ago, and are unable to integrate into Assamese civil society or enjoy human rights assured by the Constitution.
Low wages, a high rate of illiteracy, coupled with the lack of alternative employment opportunities have resulted in these workers falling into a vicious circle of poverty and deprivation, one generation after the other.
Chattaraj explains that, because of the denial of ST status, the community is unable to seek employment outside, or compete in the same educational spaces as general or OBC category students. Thus, they are forced to return to the exploitative tea gardens. The workers are also so poor that they cannot buy land outside the plantations. They have no land rights within the garden and therefore have to work on the fields. This is similar to the way American slave plantations and quarters were conceived.
Thus, legal ST status and higher wages are essential for the workers.
The Plantation Labour Act of 1951 ensures fair treatment and socio-economic security on paper, but this is not implemented systematically.
Moreover, in the past week at least 250 tea estates shut down, and many workers, who were already underpaid have now lost their livelihood. The Government did promise a wage hike, but because of continued systemic negligence, Assam tea workers are extremely suspicious of this. Two years ago, they were supposed to have a hike in daily wages from 167 to 350 rupees, but this was never implemented.
The Guardian reports that workers are unable to meet basic household necessities:
“The only way we manage is by not buying any clothes. When the children ask for a certain food item, we say no. We have to keep saying no all the time to everything they ask. I need this wage rise but I don’t know if it will happen,” a worker said.
This will be an important issue as the Assam elections are coming up in April. A civil servant told the guardian that if it does get politicised, then there’s an even less chance of payment.