“What can be done in Rs 200 today?,” asks Joshula Gurung, a tea leaf plucker at Ging Tea Estate in Darjeeling’s Pulbazar CD Block, who earns Rs 232 as daily wage. She says a one-way fare for a car-pool costs Rs 400 to Siliguri, 60 km from Darjeeling, and the closest large city where workers go for treatment of serious medical illness.
This is the reality of tens of thousands of workers – over 50% of whom are women – in the tea plantations of North Bengal. They are paid meagre wages, bound by a colonial labour system, without land rights and with little access to government schemes, our reporting from Darjeeling found.
“[T]he abject working and inhumane living conditions of tea labourers is reminiscent of the indentured labour introduced in colonial times by British planters,” noted a 2022 report by a Parliamentary Standing Committee.
Workers are trying to improve their lives, they said, and experts concurred. Most workers educate their children, and send them away from the plantations to work. They are also fighting for a higher minimum wage, and for land rights over their ancestral homes, we found.
But their already precarious lives are at even greater risk because of the state of the Darjeeling tea industry due to climate change, competition from cheaper teas, recession in global markets and lower production and demand, about which we reported in the first of this two-part series. This second and concluding part will focus on the condition of workers in the tea plantations.
The labour system
Tea estate lands in North Bengal are not owned, but are under a lease system, since the enactment of the Land Reforms Act, 1955. Companies are leased a patch of land for a period of time to grow tea, and the land’s ownership remains with the state government.
For generations, tea workers have created homes on rent-free land inside plantations in Darjeeling, Dooars and the Terai region.
Even though the Tea Board of India has no official figures, according to a 2013 report published by the West Bengal Labour Commission, big tea estates in the Darjeeling hills, Terai and Dooars have a population of 11,24,907 with 2,62,426 permanent and more than 70,000 casual and contract workers.
A relic of the colonial past, owners make it mandatory for families staying inside the estates to send at least one member to work in the tea gardens, else they lose their homes. Workers do not have ownership over the land, and thus no title deed, known as a parja-patta, for it.
Since permanent employment in North Bengal tea gardens is available only through kinship, a free and open labour market has never been a possibility, leading to bondage labour, as per a 2021 study titled “Exploitation of Labour in the Darjeeling Tea Plantations, published in the International Journal of Law Management & Humanities.”
Pluckers currently get paid Rs 232 a day. After deducting money that goes into the worker’s provident fund, workers receive about Rs 200, which they say is not enough to survive, and not commensurate with the work they do.
On the other hand, tea plantation owners complain about high absenteeism.
Singtom Tea Estate Managing Director Mohan Chirimar said that absenteeism among tea workers in North Bengal is above 40%. “In our garden, almost half of the tea-working population doesn’t come to work anymore.”
One of the reasons for the unwillingness to work is the meagre pay, activists said.
“This meagre amount for eight hours of intensive and skilled labour is the reason why the workforce in tea plantations is reducing each day,” said Sumendra Tamang, a social activist who works for the rights of tea workers in North Bengal. “People skipping their jobs in tea gardens to work under MGNREGA [the government’s rural jobs programme] or at any other place where the pay is more, is common.”
Joshila Gurung and her colleagues, Sunita Bikey and Chandramati Tamang, at Ging Tea Garden in Darjeeling said that their main demand is for an increase in the minimum wage at the tea gardens.
As per the latest circular released by the Government of West Bengal’s Office of the Labour Commissioner, the minimum wage per day for an unskilled employee in agriculture should be Rs 284 without food and Rs 264 with food.
But what is to be paid to tea workers is decided in a tripartite meeting involving representatives of tea owners’ associations, workers’ unions and state government officials. Unions wanted the new daily wage to be Rs 240, but the West Bengal government declared it to be Rs 232 in June.
Rakesh Sarki, supervisor of pluckers at Darjeeling’s second-oldest tea estate, Happy Valley, also complained about irregular payment of their salaries. “Since 2017, we don’t even get paid regularly. They pay us a lump sum after every two-three months. Sometimes there are longer delays and this is true for every tea garden in the hills.”
“Considering the ongoing inflation and overall economic situation that prevails in India, it’s beyond imagination how a tea worker survives with her family with just Rs 200 a day,” said Dawa Sherpa, a PhD Research Scholar at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning in Jawaharlal Nehru University, who is originally from Kurseong. “Tea workers in Darjeeling and Assam get paid the lowest. At one tea garden in neighbouring Sikkim, workers get around Rs 500 a day. In Kerala, the daily wage is more than Rs 400 and even in Tamil Nadu, it’s around Rs 350.”
The 2022 Parliamentary Standing Committee report asked for the implementation of the Minimum Wage Act for tea garden workers, saying that the daily wage in Darjeeling tea estates is “among the lowest wages paid to any industrial worker in the country”.
The low, irregular pay is why thousands of workers like Rakesh and Joshila discourage their children from joining tea gardens. “We have struggled hard to educate our children. It’s not the best education, but they can at least read and write. Why should they break their bones for an underpaid job in tea gardens,” Joshila, whose son works as a cook in Bengaluru, said. She believes tea workers have been exploited for generations because they were illiterate. “Our children need to break the chain.”
Along with their salary, workers in tea plantations are entitled to provident fund, gratuity, housing, free medical facilities, free education for their children, creche houses for female workers, fuel and protective gear such as aprons, umbrellas, raincoats and high boots. These, as per this Frontline report, make the total wage about Rs 350 a day. Employers also need to pay a yearly festival bonus for Durga Puja.
“These are known as ‘kind’ wages and generally include food grains as well,” said Sherpa.
The Darjeeling Organic Tea Estates Private Limited, former owners of at least 10 estates in North Bengal, including Happy Valley, sold their gardens in September, leaving more than 6,500 workers hanging without salaries, provident fund, gratuity and Puja bonuses.
The Darjeeling Organic Tea Estates Private Limited eventually sold six of the 10 tea estates it owned in October. “New owners are yet to pay all our dues. Salaries are still pending and only one instalment of Pujo bonus was paid,” said Sarki of Happy Valley in November.
At Peshok Tea Garden, currently under new owner Silicon Agriculture Tea Company, the situation is similar, said Sobhadebi Tamang. “My mother has retired but her pending provident fund and gratuity funds are still due. New management had promised that all our dues would be paid in three instalments by July 31 .”
Her supervisor Pesang Norbu Tamang said the new owners were yet to settle in and they would pay the dues shortly, adding that the Pujo bonuses were paid in time. Sobhadebi’s colleague Sushila Rai, was quick to respond. “They haven’t even paid our salaries correctly.”
“Our daily wage was Rs 202 but the government increased it to Rs 232. Even though owners were informed about the raise in June, we are entitled to be paid the new wage from January,” she said. “Owners are yet to pay that.”
Tea estate management often weaponise the distress caused by a closed tea garden to threaten workers when they demand for pending wages or increments, according to a 2021 study in the International Journal of Law Management & Humanities. “This threat of closure has allowed the circumstances to be totally in favour of the management and the workers can do nothing but abide by it.”
“Tea workers never get the actual provident fund money and gratuity…Even if they [owners] are compelled to, they always pay less than what workers earned during their lifetime of slavery,” said activist Tamang.
No land rights
Land ownership for the workers is a contentious issue between the owners of tea estates and workers. Owners say that people hold on to their accommodation on tea plantations even without working on the plantations, while workers say that they should be given land rights as their families have always lived on the land.
Chirimar of Singtom Tea Estate said that more than 40% of those residing inside the Singtom Tea Estate were not working in the gardens anymore. “People go to Singapore and Dubai to work, while their families back here enjoy free housing benefits…The government must take radical actions now and ensure that every family in tea plantations sends at least one member to work in the garden. Rest can go and work outside, we don’t have any problem with that.”
Trade unionist, Sunil Rai, the joint secretary of the Darjeeling Terai Dooars Chia Kaman Mazdoor Union, said that tea estates provide a ‘no-objection certificate’ to workers to build their own homes inside the tea estate. “Why should they leave homes they have built on their own?”
Rai, who is also a spokesperson of the Joint Forum (Hills), a conglomeration of trade unions belonging to several political parties in Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts, said that the workers do not have rights to the land their homes are build on, and their long standing demand for parja-patta (land title deed) has fallen on deaf ears.
Because they do not have title-deeds, or rent contracts, workers cannot cannot get their properties covered under insurance schemes.
Manju Rai, a plucker at Tukvar Tea Estate in Darjeeling’s Pulbazar CD Block, did not receive any compensation when her home was severely damaged by a landslide. “I built my house which got shattered [by a landslide last year],” she said, adding that bamboo sticks, old jute bags and tarpaulin sheets are keeping her home from getting completely effaced. “I don’t have enough money to build another house. Both my sons work in transportation. Even they don’t earn enough. Any help from the company would be great.”
The Parliamentary Standing Committee report said that this system “alienate[s] tea workers from their basic land rights despite seven decades of independence, which starkly undermines the clarion claims of successful land reform movements in the country”.
The demand for parja-patta has been raised constantly since 2013, said Rai. Even though elected representatives and politicians have failed tea workers so far, they are at least compelled to talk about issues of tea workers now, he said, noting that Darjeeling Member of Parliament Raju Bista has proposed a legislation to grant parja-patta for tea workers. “Albeit slowly, times are changing.”
Dibyendu Bhattacharya, Joint Secretary of the Land and Land Reforms & Refugee, Relief and Rehabilitation Department, West Bengal, who handles land affairs of Darjeeling as per the secretary’s office of the same department, refused to speak on this matter. Repeated phone calls were answered with “I am not authorised to speak to the media”.
An email with a detailed questionnaire seeking reasons for not granting land rights to tea workers was sent to the secretary as well, as asked by her office. We will update the story when she responds.
“There is absence of labour market and the workers being devoid of any land entitlement has not only ensured cheap labour but bonded labour,” for the plantations, author Rajeshwi Pradhan of Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, wrote in a 2021 paper on the exploitation of labour in Darjeeling’s tea plantations. “Lack of employment opportunities near the estates and fear of losing homestead makes their situation of bondage even worse.”
Plantation Labour Act
The root cause of tea workers’ miseries stem from poor, or lack of, implementation of the Plantation Labour Act, 1951, experts said. All tea gardens registered with the Tea Board of India in Darjeeling, Terai and Dooars region are bound by the Act. As a result, all permanent workers and families in these gardens are also entitled to get benefits as mandated by the law.
As per the Plantation Labour Act, 1956, the West Bengal government formulated the West Bengal Plantation Labour Rules, 1956, to enact the central Act. However, Sherpa and Tamang said that almost all big estates of the 449 tea plantations in North Bengal flout the central and state government regulations with ease.
The Plantation Labour Act makes it “the duty of every employer to provide and maintain necessary housing accommodation” for all workers and their families residing inside the plantation premises. Tea garden owners say the rent-free land they have provided for more than 100 years is their provision of housing facilities to workers and their families.
The 150-plus small tea growers, on the other hand, do not even care about the Plantation Labour Act, 1951, as they are exempt from its regulation for operating in less than five hectares, said Sherpa.
Under the Plantation Labour Act, 1951, Manju, whose house was damaged by a landslide, is qualified for compensation. “She submitted two applications but the owners have not paid any attention. This kind of situation can be easily avoided if we get parja-patta of our land,” said Ram Subba, supervisor of Manju and other pluckers at Tukvar Tea Estate.
The Parliamentary standing committee noted the “perpetual struggle of tea workers to seek rights for their own lands not only for living but even for burying their dead family members”. The committee proposed the enactment of a legislation “which recognises the rights and ownership of small and marginalised tea workers to their ancestral lands and resources”.
The 2018 Plant Protection Code issued by the Tea Board of India suggests workers be provided head protection, shoes, gloves, aprons and overalls, to protect them from pesticides and other chemicals sprayed in the fields.
Workers complain about the quality and availability of new gear when it becomes old or damaged with time. “We don’t get goggles even though we are supposed to. To even get aprons, gloves and shoes, we have to struggle hard, give constant reminders to supervisors and then the manager always delays his approval,” said Gurung in Ging tea garden. “He [manager] acts as if he is spending from his own pocket for our equipment. But if we skip work one day due to, say, lack of gloves, he would not miss the chance to deduct our wage.”
Workers in Tukvar, Peshok, Happy Valley and Kanchan View also complained of similar issues.
Gloves don’t protect her hands from the toxic smell of pesticides she sprayed on tea leaves, Joshila said. “On days when we spray the chemical, our meals also smell the same.” She burst out laughing on being told that eating without washing hands properly could lead to a health hazard, and said, “Where do we wash our hands? During corona we got sanitiser but we don’t use it anymore. Don’t worry we are Pahari people. We can eat and digest anything.”
A report by BEHANBOX in 2022 found that women workers’ exposure to toxic pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers without proper safety gear in North Bengal tea plantations were giving rise to skin problems, blurred vision and respiratory and digestive disorders.
The report said that tea growers were forced to rely on intensive use of agrochemicals in order to combat the impacts of climate change that have affected the quality and production of Darjeeling tea.
We tried reaching out to Chamong Group, the owners of Ging Tea Estate, who are based in Kolkata, for their comment on the workers’ complaints about the lack of protective gear. We were asked to send an email with questions when we called their office and will update the story when they respond.
Despite being one of the poorest, tea workers often fail to avail benefits of several central government schemes, especially the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana for housing, due to the lack of land rights, as per the 2022 Parliamentary Standing Committee report. Under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, the local government should provide land to the landless to build houses, but that has not been done for plantation workers, they say.
Most families of tea workers are qualified to receive free cooking gas connections under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana scheme. But touts and middlemen make this difficult, workers said. In Darjeeling district, 1,25,456 connections have been set up under Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana by November 24, 2022, according to the scheme’s dashboard.
“Dealers in our area took Rs 1,500-2,500 to deliver prime minister Modi’s gas. On TV, people said it was free so we went to get a connection. But the dealers convinced us that an installation charge would be needed,” said Sobhadebi, who paid Rs 2,500 for a gas cylinder and connection.
Tea workers also complained about non-availability of benefits from the Swasthya Sathi scheme, a flagship programme of the West Bengal government to provide health cover to a family for secondary and tertiary care up to Rs 5 lakh per year.
“Swasthya Sathi card works only in Siliguri. No private hospitals in the hills accept the card. We either have to go to the district hospitals in Darjeeling and Kalimpong or pay from our pockets in private,” said 53-year-old Manoj Subba in Peshok. “Health centres in tea estates are hardly functional.”
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly said that private hospitals in the state denying patients benefits of Swasthya Sathi would face sanctions. She has also asked families of patients to lodge a police report in case of a hospital’s refusal to treat them under the state government health scheme.
We reached out to the district magistrate of Darjeeling to ask about the implementation of the PMAY and tha Swasthya Sathi, and will update the story when we receive a response. We also reached out to the West Bengal health department about Swasthaya Sathi and private hospitals in the state and will update the story when we receive a response.
The 2013 survey by the West Bengal government found that of 273 tea estates, 166 in the Darjeeling, Terai and Dooars region had hospitals, and only 56 had full-time residential doctors and 116 did not even have a nurse. The rest depended on visiting medical practitioners.
Even though the report is almost a decade old, it still shows the reality of tea gardens in North Bengal, said Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Sherpa.
Workers say education in state-run schools is not of good quality while they are unable to afford private schools.
Arpan Tamang runs a roadside tea stall in Peshok tea garden. His mother is a plucker in the estate, and he worked there for two years, before realising that his salary would not be enough to send his son to a good school.
“My son studies in the Class 1 in a private school where his monthly fees is Rs 700. I plan to send him to Kalimpong or Siliguri for higher studies,” said 28-year-old Arpan who dreams of getting out of his one-bedroom home in the plantation with the help of his son. “My parents fostered a similar dream but she failed to provide a good education. I don’t wish to suffer like them in old age.”
Access to food
In-kind wages for workers usually include food grains, said Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Sherpa. This report highlighted how tea estates in Darjeeling, Dooars and the Terai region were flouting their responsibility of providing rations as in-kind wages.
Tea growers would buy grain from the Food Corporation of India at market price, amounting to a monthly investment of Rs 660 per worker per month. Since the implementation of the National Food Security Act, and West Bengal’s Khadya Sathi, owners have been saving this sum, reported Scroll in 2016.
Scroll had found that tea estate management, who were made ration dealers when the Government of West Bengal implemented the National Food Security Act in 2016, were procuring ration at subsidised rates from the government and distributing it among employees and their families, thus saving money.
Some plantations give money instead of foodgrains, but that too is not an ideal solution, given the meagre allotments, workers say.
“Earlier, we used to get 2 kg wheat and 1 kg rice [per week]. My wife is also a worker so the materials were doubled for us. But as you can understand, it was impossible to survive with that ration,” said 42-year-old Prabhat Tamang, who works as a driver in Tukvar Tea Garden and whose wife is a cook in the tea garden manager’s bungalow.
“So, we demanded money instead of rice and wheat. Now our daily ration allotment is Rs 9.”
As a consequence, 43.8% of children were stunted (short for their age), 20.2% were wasted (low weight for their height) and 36.2% were underweight (low weight for age), found Cooch Behar Panchanan Barma University’s Professor Dipika Subba in her study published in the International Journal of Child Health and Nutrition in 2021 of tea gardens in the Darjeeling hills. Subba found that the level of stunting was 14% higher than the district average and 10% more than the state average in children, 1-5 years. Wasting was 10% higher than the district average, and 1% lower than the state. Underweight children were 11% higher than the district average, and 3% higher than the state.
Then there are issues exclusive to the women workforce but they are ignored by all – tea estate management, trade unions and male colleagues, said Pratima Chamling Rai, of Raiganj University in West Bengal, wrote in a 2019 study. “Women face issues related to maternity leave, creche facilities, etc. They are also overloaded with household tasks and are rarely included, or promoted, in sub-staff and staff category.”
“Most importantly, women are not involved in [trade] unions. This ostracisation from all sections makes them silent and their issues irrelevant to the management’s concern…If women were involved in unions and promoted to different staff categories, then they would raise their voice, understand another woman’s problem.”
In a bid to rescue the Darjeeling tea industry and improve the standards of living of workers and their families, the West Bengal government announced the ‘Tea Tourism and Allied Business Policy, 2019. This permitted tea estates to utilise 15% of their lands, or a maximum of 150 acres, for tea tourism and other allied business activities such as “wellness centres, educational institutions, cultural/recreational & exhibition centres, floriculture, medicinal plants, food processing units, packaging units etc”.
Existing developments under this policy include high-end properties, with major hotel chains like Taj coming in. This model does not help workers, experts and workers told IndiaSpend.
A 2021 study showed that luxury and exotic experiences associated with tea tourism are the result of “improper planning and marketing efforts, limited collaboration among the stakeholders and involvement of local people”. The study noted that researchers say that tea tourism has so far “failed in revitalising the local economy towards sustainable development because of poor policy planning and mismanagement”.
Kanchan View Tea Estate manager Atul Rana disagreed, saying that tourism activities inside tea gardens would be a blessing for both the owners and workers. “Of course, local workers and their wards would be given preference for employment,” Rana said.
But a local resident associated with a political party, who requested anonymity, said, “I am an educated youth but I don’t have training in hotel management. So, how can I work in a five-star hotel? I refuse to believe tea garden management that doesn’t pay the minimum wage mandated by the government will invest in training youth like me before giving jobs…only low-paying manual jobs would be reserved for uneducated locals. Few fortunate youths with hotel management training might land an attractive job. This kind of tourism will do no good to us.”
The alternative, experts said, is to allow homestays and budget tourism for all kinds of tourists and not just the rich.
“The tourism that [tea estate] owners want only attracts either foreigners or rich Indians. We want them to allow us to run homestays in our houses. That way middle-class and budget tourists from India would also get a taste of tea tourism,” said Rakesh, the supervisor at Happy Valley Tea Estate.
But since workers do not have land rights, they do not have permission to run homestays or other tourism-related businesses inside the gardens.
In July, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee asked Chief Secretary HK Dwivedi for an amendment in existing policies for allowing workers to set up homestays inside tea estates. However, this change is yet to take place. We have asked the land reforms department and the tourism ministry about the amendment and will update the story when we receive a response.
For a change in the lives of tea plantation workers in Darjeeling, they first need a higher pay, land rights, and permission to run their own homestays, said Tamang. “Only underpaid jobs will not solve anything.”
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.