While industries across the country remained shut because of the nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus, tea garden employees in eastern India went back to work.

On April 3, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order granting the tea industry an exemption from the lockdown, provided they followed certain restrictions on the workforce and social distancing measures were strictly enforced.

Early in April, tea gardens in the North Eastern states of Assam and Tripura started operating with 50% of their workforce. West Bengal tea gardens must make do with 25% of the workforce.

“There has been a general welcome from workers concerned,” said PK Bhattacharjee, secretary general of Tea Association of India. “In fact a lot of pictures have gone around showing how social distancing has been maintained in the plucking and manufacturing.”

But workers point to large gatherings of people at various points of the production process. Thirty-five-year-old Vinay Karketta, a tea-garden worker in West Bengal’s Alipurduar district, spoke of a melee as workers assembled to get their tea leaves weighed. “We know the kind of maara-maari [jostling] that happens there,” he said.

Krishna Paik, 34, employed at a tea estate run by the Goodricke Group in Assam’s Biswanath district, pointed out that it took at least three workers to haul a sack of tea into a truck, and two people to run a machine to process tea. How would they maintain social distancing there?

Pradeep Chhetri, a supervisor at a garden run by Hind Co Tea Limited in West Bengal’s Ramjhora district, said workers had to make do with a common bar of soap. They had no hand sanitisers or masks, either. “We see everything on TV but no one takes it seriously here,” said 54-year-old Chhetri.

Several workers said there were no health check ups, not even basic thermal screening. “There is no testing kit or hospital here,” said Chhetri. “What if something happens to us? We will not even know if someone has symptoms. We should not be getting out.”

But there was one reason that had driven tea workers across states back to work: hunger.

Krishna Paik sent an image showing how many people it takes to operate a machine in the factory.

All work and no pay

As Chhetri explained, tea garden workers with no land or other means of survival were dependent on the companies that employed them.

Tea growers are also keen to get back to business. Assam and West Bengal account for 80% of the country’s tea production, said Bhattacharjee. The lockdown came just as the first flush, or the best quality tea leaves, were to be picked.

“We have lost heavily and we will lose further because the tea industry is in very bad shape,” said one tea estate owner in West Bengal who employs around 1,000 workers and did not wish to be identified.

Both Central and state governments have issued guidelines stipulating that workers should be paid wages during the lockdown period. Daily wages for tea garden workers in Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley and in West Bengal are a paltry Rs 167. But companies are struggling to pay even these wages for the period when the gardens were shut because of the lockdown.

“There is no liquidity in the system,” Bhattacharjee claimed, adding that companies were trying to make good on payments.

But workers had no choice but to keep working, noted Abhijit Mazumdar of the Terrai Sangrami Cha Shramik Union in northern West Bengal. The industry had already lost the premium flush, he said, if workers did not get back to the gardens, all hope of payment would be lost.

‘We will die hungry’

Almost every tea garden worker has the same story – no wages, few savings and rations running out.

Paik starts at 6.15 am every day to cycle four kilometres to the factory of the Goodricke estate in Assam. The estate has 300 employees, of which only the 150 permanent workers have been called back. Paik has been a permanent employee since 2002.

But he has not been paid wages from March 25 to April 12, when the garden was shut. Workers on the estate have repeatedly appealed to the management for their salary.

“They say they will not give us the money and tell us, ‘What will you do?’” said Paik.“But if we stay home, we will die hungry.” The Goodricke Group had not responded to questions sent by Scroll.in about the payment of salaries at the time of the article’s publication.

Update on May 4: In an email sent after the article’s publication, the Goodricke Group said: “Wages to workers at all our gardens including the one located in Biswanath Circle has been paid in advance @Rs 500 per week during 25th March 2020 and 12th April 2020 as per the standard procedure laid down by the Indian Tea Association. It has been decided by the Association that the companies shall pay the balance amount once the gardens start its operations optimally.” The management claimed Paik had also received his wages. “What is his intension to provide such misleading information, if at all, remains a mystery to us.”

Paik and his family received 20 kgs of rice through their ration card on April 2. It was woefully inadequate to feed his family, which includes his wife and five children – aged 14, 12, 10, eight and four years – through the month. “For us, 20 kgs finish in one week,” he said.

Before the lockdown, Paik withdrew Rs 2,000, which he now uses to buy essentials, and his wife received Rs 500 in her Jan Dhan account. He has around Rs 1,500 saved up in his account but fears police action if he ventures out to go to the bank, about five kilometres away.

It is no better in West Bengal – Chhetri said his company had not paid employees wages for 25 days of work.

“They say they will be able to pay if the government gives some money,” said Chhetri, who has been a tea garden worker for 24 years. His wife, 45-year-old Madhumaya Chhetri, is also a tea plucker in the same garden. Neither have been paid.

Hind Tea Company Limited has not yet responded to Scroll.in’s questions on workers’ salaries.

Chhetri has around Rs 2,000 saved up. Through his ration card, he got 14 kg of rice and 18 kg wheat flour. It will not be enough to feed his five children – aged between 26 and 13 – for more than a few days.

Krishna Paik sent a photo of workers practicing social distancing in the tea gardens.

The abandoned

It is even worse for workers in closed or sick tea gardens. These were abandoned by owners and financiers, leaving thousands of workers behind. They had no choice but to keep plucking tea leaves and selling them to gardens that were still open.

Karketta works in a closed garden in Alipurduar. It was abandoned by its owner in 2014. For nearly two years, about 100 workers have been running the garden like a co-operative, he said.

The workers were able to pluck some leaves of the first flush but some of the leaves had aged and most had to be thrown away. “We usually sell new leaves for Rs 25 per kilo but this time we sold it for Rs 15 since the leaves have aged,” he said.

Recently, they were able to sell 740 kg of tea leaves for Rs 12,580. Equally divided among them all, it came to just Rs 126 per person, Karketta said.

That is if they exclude the amount workers have to pay for transporting the leaves to open gardens nearly 20 kilometres away. “We cannot move during a lockdown,” Karketta explained. “We have to arrange for a pick-up van that costs Rs 1,200 for under 20 kilometres. We pay the driver after we get the money but sometimes the police also want ‘cut money’.”

Karketta has no savings left and is relying on the 10 kg of wheat flour and 5 kg of rice he got from the ration shop. This is not enough to feed his wife, his nine-year-old son, his 60-year-old mother, his two younger brothers, their wives and children for two weeks.

The poorest worked in these gardens, said Anuradha Talwar of the Poschim Bongo Khet Majdoor Samiti. The West Bengal government’s Financial Assistance to Workers of Locked Out Industries ensures Rs 1,500 per month to unemployed workers. But many workers in closed tea gardens were not enrolled in these schemes, Talwar said.

Government must step in

Tea garden owners, meanwhile, say it would be a “herculean” task to pay workers wages for the lockdown period and after without any help from the government. “Nobody in the industry has paid the lockdown wages,” said the owner who employs 1,000 workers in Bengal.

At present, he said, his entire permanent workforce was employed on a rotation basis. Crop losses would continue because of the limitations on the workforce, he predicted.

Shanti Ranjan Paul, owner of Ess Ess Endeavours Private Limited, which has tea gardens across Jalpaiguri district in West Bengal, was in agreement. “If we can employ only 25% then that indirectly means that we can only maintain 25% of the garden,” he said.

Even before the pandemic set in, the industry had a financial backlog, said Bhattacharjee of the Tea Association of India. “The basic fact is that the realised prices are not matching the cost of production,” he explained. “The government will have to take a lot of initiative to save the organised tea industry.” The burden of maintaining a provident fund for workers, he felt, should be taken up by government since companies did not have the financial wherewithal.

At present, Paul said, they would only be able to pay wages after the production and auction of tea. “We think that the Central government should take some measures to increase the auction price of the tea since we have lost the crop that fetches us the highest price,” he said.