A report by Oxfam International likely to discourage UK supermarkets from sourcing tea in Assam, due to working conditions at origin, incited a storm locally with tea planters who warned Oxfam to retract its findings. Critics questioned the methods Oxfam India used to calculate wages and cited a miscalculation of worker benefits in the report.
Oxfamis a confederation of 20 independent charitable organizations focusing on thealleviation of global poverty, with its headquarters in Kenya, a major teaexporting country. Assam produces more than half of India’s tea.
The Oxfam study was conducted jointly with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the UK’s Bureau for the Appraisal of Social Impacts for Citizen Information (BASIC). The report, titled ‘Addressing the Human Cost of Assam Tea’ — An agenda for change to respect, protect and fulfill human rights on Assam tea plantations, is based on interviews with 510 workers at 50 tea estates supplying international tea brands and supermarket private label brands.
“Workerson tea plantations in the Assam region of India are systematically denied theirrights to a living wage and decent working and living conditions,” according tothe report, adding, “Half of households interviewed receive government ‘belowpoverty line’ ration cards. A third experience recurrent debt. Some workershave remained in the same pay grade for 15-20 years.”
OxfamInternational writes that “the root causes are deeply embedded in the historyand evolution of the Indian tea industry, which has led to a pervasiveinequality of power between the women and men who produce tea and the brandsand supermarkets that sell it to consumers.”
“Forevery kilogram of packaged Assam tea that is sold, tea brands and supermarketstake a sizable cut – up to 95% in some cases – while a marginal proportion –less than 5% ‒ remains on tea estates to pay workers,” according to the Oxfamreport.
Planters responded: “Suggesting in any way that peopleshould stop sourcing tea from Assam is not only irresponsible, it is demeaningto everyone who has put their sweat, blood, and tears into maintaining thequality and efficiency of a tax-paying industry which supports not only thepeople working for them but all ancillary businesses built around it.”
India Tea Associationsecretary general Arijit Raha told TheHindu, Oxfam’s study came to conclusions on issues based on findings insome tea gardens that did not reflect the true picture of the industry.
“The study has drawnreference through an illustration on how much of the price consumers pay fortea is received by the worker. The analysis, regrettably, has left out theshare of the price being paid to the producer organisations providingemployment to the workers,” he said.
ITA gardens bear 50% of the social and infrastructural costsmandated by the Plantation Labour Act. Oxfam’s calculations were based on 13-hourworkdays “when nonein plucking worked more than seven hours a day,’ said Raha.
Conditions cited in the report could be made better,according to senior planters who provided a written rebuttal, noting “realissues that people on the ground face” include but are not limited to genderinsensitivity, alcoholism, lack of proper skill-based education, and culturaltaboos, according to planters.
The report notes that Assam government’s commitment toincrease the minimum wages of tea plantation workers to $4.50 per day (INRs351) has met withhurdles tied to the financial viability of the sector. Lastyear workers inthe Brahmaputra River Valley received an increase toINRs167($2.43) per day. Wages in the Barak Valley were increased to INRs145 ($2.11)per day. Recently workers were awarded the maximum 20% year-end holiday bonus.Nationally India legislators are pressing for a minimum wage of INRs350, alittle more than $5 per day.
"As an industry, in the last 20 years, the owners and workers have survived by being equitable to each other whether it was amenities, wages, bonuses, or lock downs, thus ensuring the quality of the world’s best tea,” counter planters.
The statement continues: “Instead of maligning thereputation of over a million people which might cause further unemployment, abetter way would have been to identify issues on the ground and solutions toovercome them, which is how we work. The report carelessly ‘addressed’ a fewissues such as living conditions and the lack of healthcare facilities. Pleasenote that the living conditions of housing complexes are what the people livingin them make it. Workforces and their families are provided accommodation,access to healthcare, rations, job security, job prospects for futuregenerations, over and above the wages and bonuses, they earn. Bonusesconstitute approximately 20% profits in addition to the salary.”
“Supermarkets and tea brands in India retain more than half (58.2%) ofthe final consumer price of black processed tea sold in the country, with just7.2% remaining for workers (using plucking costs as a proxy indicator of laborcosts),” according to the report. Supermarkets and tea brands retain someINRs40.4 ($0.61) from the sale of a typical 200g package of black tea priced atINRs68.8 ($1.06) while workers collectively receive just INRs4.95 ($0.08) perpack.
- In the United States, supermarkets and tea brands receive93.8% of the final consumer price for bagged black tea sold in the country.Oxfam calculated the amount paid laborers at 0.8% of the final price.
- In Germany, supermarkets and tea brands receive86.5% of the final consumer price for bagged black tea sold in the country.Oxfam calculated the amount paid laborers at 1.4% of the final price.
- In the Netherlands, supermarkets and tea brandsreceive 83.7% of the final consumer price for bagged black tea sold in thecountry. Oxfam calculated the amount paid laborers at 2.9% of the final price.
- In the United Kingdom, supermarkets and tea brandsreceive 66.8% of the final consumer price for bagged black tea sold in thecountry. Oxfam calculated the amount paid laborers at 4% of the final price.
Workers on tea estates in Assam currently receive the equivalent of just$0.04 per 100g of bagged black tea sold to consumers. Increasing this amount bythe equivalent $0.10 would enable a living wage, according to Oxfam.
Oxfam ethicaltrade manager Rachel Wilshaw was quoted in TheTelegraph: "Despite some pockets of good practice, supermarkets'relentless pursuit of profits continues to fuel poverty and human rights abusesin their supply chains. "Supermarketsmust do more to end exploitation, pay all their workers a living wage, ensurewomen get a fair deal, and be more transparent about where they source their products."
She added:"Supermarkets are snapping up the lion's share of the price we pay at thetill but the workers who toil for hours to harvest tea and fruit face inhumaneworking conditions and are paid so little they can't even feed theirfamilies."
PeterAndrews, head of sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC) which representsthe UK’s major supermarkets said, “our members are working hard to addressexisting injustices and continue to collaborate internationally with charitiesand business groups on this vital issue."
Oxfam India enlisted a Bollywoodactor who hails from Assam to campaignon their behalf in a one-minute videoclip. In the clip he uses poetry to describe the “pathetic” condition ofthe labor force in the Assam. Actor Adil Hussain, star of theshow English Vinglish and a member of the cast of Star Trek:Discovery, described the plight of workers who refrain from drinking waterwhen they are thirsty due to sanitary concerns.
He says (looselytranslated from Hindi): "The thing about the tea estate workers isdifferent here (Assam). They don't drink too much water because there isneither a bathroom, nor the freedom to use it."
"The truthbehind these smiling faces is really something else. The helplessness of thoseexploited for 160 years is something else after all."
Support us as wework together to uplift the conditions of over a million tea estate workers,appeals Hussian.
The planters said if one really wanted to ease the plight ofthe workers, they should encourage more people to invest in Assam tea and sourcemore of the tea directly from the gardens to ensure that there is enough moneyto pay suggested daily wages so they can “go over and above providing alternateincome sources, education, and a better lifestyle for the workforces and theirfamilies.”
The industry is experiencing an “obvious lurch” with teasales at an all-time low. Prices at auction are determined on the whims ofblenders, traders, brokers, and other middlemen, not on the owners or theworkers, they say.
Unless the report by Oxfam is retracted, the group ofplanters warned that researchers may not be welcomed as in the past. “If theyever come back for any purpose, research, development, or otherwise, they mightface a lot of opposition, not by the management, but by the workforce itself.”
“Generalisingbased on inaccurate facts harms the reputation of the industry and its workersand also tarnishes the image of Indian tea, which has a pride of place in theworld,” said ITA’s Raha.