Overflowing cesspits, under-age labourers, pesticide poisoning and severely malnourished children are widely reported across Assam’s tea plantations, most recently by the BBC.
But this is not exactly news. Conditions have barely improved since colonial times when the plantations had their own parallel governance structure. The lowest-paid workers barely rise above the World Bank’s poverty line and earn a paltry 40 per cent of India’s average wage.
But now, tea pickers are fighting back. After falling profits led annual bonuses to be halved in September, thousands of female workers in Kerala went out on strike under the banner Pembilla Orumai (Women’s Unity), prompting similar industrial action in coffee and rubber plantations and undermining the region’s lucrative tourism trade.
The government has been forced to open its eyes, with Kerala’s Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy, admitting that ‘successive governments [have] failed to catch the lapses of the management’ in observing laws on the humane treatment of workers.
Will a group of marginalized female labourers do what international financial institutions, NGOs, certifi-cation bodies and governments have for years failed to achieve? Let’s hope that another century won’t pass before tea workers gain the same rights as other agricultural labourers in India.