For a century and a half, Madhu Munda’s forebears toiled on the same tea plantation that she lives and works on now. Belonging to central Indian tribes brought to Assam by the British in the mid-19th century, they and millions of other plantation workers survived as little more than indentured servants, even as the British Raj gave way to Indian democracy.
So when Amalgamated Plantations took over the plantation in 2008, Ms. Munda and her fellow workers had high hopes for change. The company’s investors said they planned to transform this sprawling tea estate into a model for sustainable and responsible labour policy through an employee shareholding programme. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), a branch of the World Bank partly funded by the U.S. government, lent the new company legitimacy with a sizable investment. In approving funding, the IFC stated that Amalgamated promised to “create opportunities for people to escape poverty and improve their lives.”
But that early optimism has evaporated. Despite pledges of better working and living conditions, Ms. Munda, 45, finds herself living a life not dissimilar to that of her grandparents. Her family shares a cramped and crumbling house with three other families. The well outside is filled with murky water, and a nearby latrine is rank and overflowing. Ms. Munda says she has been emptying a bucket filled with the water that leaks through her roof for 15 monsoon seasons.
Denial of basic benefits
In interviews at two of the company’s plantations, workers said their overseers treated them harshly and denied them basic benefits. Ms. Munda said that to qualify for a paid sick day, workers had to report to the plantation clinic three times a day to prove their illness. Raju Mantra, the son of two plantation workers, said that protective equipment was withheld from workers.
“When big people come to visit, they give it to us,” he said of equipment such as gloves and masks to protect from pesticides, “but then they put it back in storage, saying that if we wear it every day, it will wear out.”
On Monday last, the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School released a 110-page report on Amalgamated’s operations, which employ more than 30,000 people on 24 plantations in Assam and West Bengal.
The report paints a grim portrait of life on the tea plantation: dilapidated and crowded housing, hazardous water and sanitation conditions, the denial of basic benefits such as health care for workers’ dependents, widespread disregard for occupational safety measures, and pitifully low wages.
Amalgamated denies any wrongdoing. The company claims it was not given enough time to fully review the Columbia report before its release. But it issued a statement saying that the report was “incorrect and misleading in some parts,” and said that some issues such as wages, were dictated by an industry-wide recession that necessitated conservative spending.
Amalgamated’s oceanic plantations of undulating green tea bushes employ thousands of workers each. The plantations used to be owned by the Tata group, that, along with the IFC, created Amalgamated during a restructuring process in the late 2000s. Now, Amalgamated provides tea leaves primarily to Tata Global Beverages, whose Tetley and other brands of tea are widely consumed across the world.
On Tuesday, the IFC’s internal compliance and accountability office announced that it would be conducting a full investigation into the “I.F.C.'s environmental and social performance in relation to its investment in A.P.P.L.,” the abbreviation for Amalga- mated.
‘Workers’ allegations untrue’
In an email response to questions, Amalgamated’s spokesman said the allegations made by workers on the company’s plantations were untrue. The company said it adhered strictly to the Plantations Labour Act, a law that requires plantation owners to supplement wages, which can be set below State minimums, by providing tea workers with housing, schools, health care and other basic needs.
Tea worker’s rights groups say the Plantations Labour Act has perpetuated the feudal system created by British companies when they first developed the plantations. Today’s plantation workers descend almost exclusively from tribal populations transplanted in the colonial era, having inherited jobs from their parents.
The poverty that besieges tribal populations throughout India more harshly circumscribes mobility for those on Assam’s plantations. Many here said they would like to continue going to school or seek care at hospitals outside their plantations, but transportation is too costly for those who earn so little. Plantation workers like Ms. Munda can make Rs.89 ($1.43) a day picking tea leaves or performing other tasks, provided they meet their productivity quotas.
Mr. Mantra said that to get by, most tea workers ate simple meals of rice sprinkled with salt most days, splurging for eggs or fish only on paydays.
New York Times News Service