Assam Increases Tea Worker Wages Again, Some Smaller Tea Estates Are Disappointed

Authorities in Assam have increased the daily wages of tea workers by Rs 27 (India's rupee) in the Brahmaputra valley, considered to be the largest tea growing region in the world. The increase came into play this month (August).

From now on, tea workers will get Rs 232 per day in the Brahmaputra valley, while their Barak valley counterparts would get Rs 210. The increase in wages is apart from the free ration, housing, medical and other facilities that some workers receive.

Tea workers’ wages differ in different states in India, with workers in Kerala getting Rs 421.26 per day, the highest in the country, while workers in Bihar and Tripura receive lowest of Rs 175 and Rs 176, respectively.

Tea industry captains in Assam say that due to the hike in daily cash wages of tea garden workers by Rs 27, the impact in cost of production on per kg of tea would be minimum Rs 17. Hike in cash wage would automatically hike provident fund, bonus and gratuity as well.

“Considering the hike in labor wages and increasing input costs, the resultant increase in cost of production would be minimum Rs 25 per kg of tea,” a senior tea planter in tea-rich eastern Assam said.

He said that input costs like natural gas, coal, etc., have also gone up substantially this year.

This has been the second such hike in tea workers’ salary since last year. On May 21 last year, the daily wage was increased by Rs 38.

Increase in the daily wage of tea garden workers in Assam has been a major demand with workers organizations demanding Rs 350 as the daily wage since long. The opposition congress party in Assam had promised to increase the daily wage of tea garden workers to Rs 365, if voted to power. However, it was the Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power with a sweeping majority.

Tea workers in Assam play a crucial role in elections as they are almost 20 percent of the state’s population and they are a major vote bank for political parties.

Assam, having 800-odd big tea estates and more than 100,000 small gardens, produces nearly 52 percent of tea in India. Low wages and improper basic amenities in the tea estates have been a major complaint of the garden workers.

The authorities in Assam have also announced that henceforth all tea workers would be given ration cards for availing benefits under the national food safety scheme.

Although the industry has welcomed the move, many fear that the increase would be a big blow, as the price of tea in the auction centers has remained stagnant for several years now, and the wage hike will certainly jack up the cost of production.

The tea industry in India provides direct employment to 1.2 million people with women accounting for nearly 50 percent of the workforce. Most women tea workers are engaged in plucking tea leaves.

“We welcome the government decision as tea workers deserve an increase in daily wage,” said D. Bihani, an official of the Guwahati Tea Auction Centre, one of the busiest such facilities in the world. “Tea industry is totally dependent on the workforce as such it is the duty of the industry to keep them happy.”

Another senior planter, however, said that the hike has come as a big blow to the industry as the prices of tea have remained stagnant for several years now. He cautioned that since the tea workers play a vital role in the elections, there could be another increase in workers’ wages within the next couple of years. The planter requested anonymity for obvious reasons. “Political parties are least concerned about the industry, they just want to keep the workers happy to win their support during elections,” he observed.

Prices of tea at the auction centers since 2014 have averaged Rs 152, Rs 156, Rs 156, Rs 152 and Rs 155, respectively, till 2019. This equates to a tea range from US$2.17 to $2.22 per kilogram for CTC teas, for which Assam is famous for. Though the market prices went up in 2020, it was basically due to huge crop loss because of COVID-19.

Stagnant prices have been such a concern for Assam tea that the former chairman of the Tea Board of India, P.K. Bezboruah, had questioned the long-term sustainability of tea in Assam.

Tea planters in Assam claim the wages of plantation workers in the state is one of the highest in the world, working out to more than Rs 450 daily when the non-cash component is taken into account.

“The increase workers’ wages make our teas too expensive for the mass market fed by cheaper teas from countries such as Kenya and Sri Lanka,” Bezboruah observed.

A senior scientist at Tocklai Tea Research Institute, the world's oldest tea research station, said that quality production of tea would be the key to make the Assam tea industry sustainable. “We have to concentrate on producing quality tea,” he said.

Small Tea Growers Resent Hike

Small tea growers in Assam have expressed resentment over the decision of the authorities to increase the daily wage of plantation workers.

Assam government has recently brought the small tea gardens at par with the major organized estates, making them pay the same daily cash wage.

The All Assam Small Tea Growers’ Association (AASTGA) said equating the small tea growers with large gardens was an injustice on the part of the authorities. “The decision was taken without consulting us, and it is not possible for us to pay the new wages,” AASTGA President, Rajen Bora, said. He explained that the authorities first need to put in place a mechanism to ensure the small tea growers get a minimum support price for their tea leaves. “The minimum benchmark price implemented by the Tea Board has not been practical,” he said.

Assam has about 1.22 lakh registered small tea growers who account for more than 50 percent of the total tea production in the state.

Pullock Dutta – based in Assam, near the Tocklai Tea Research Institute – is a freelance journalist, contributor to World Tea News, and a previous special correspondent of the Telegraph in India for more than two decades.

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