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Weather and wages: the strain on India’s tea tribes

The August harvest in Jorhat, Assam The August harvest in Jorhat, Assam Daniel J. Rao
06 May
Climate change has become the most recent explanation for the low wages of tea labourers in Assam, India, causing yet more tensions between the government, the tea growers and those campaigning on behalf of the poor workers caught in the middle

Temperature and rainfall changes caused an eight per cent slump in Assam tea exports last year – bad news for the thousands of underpaid tea labourers that pick the West’s favourite brews. The Assam region produces one sixth of the world’s tea, however the ideal growing temperature of 35oC has increased by an average of 1.5o in the last century. On some days it can climb as high as 50oC, far beyond the threshold tea plants can survive in.

Where rainfall was once consistent and evenly distributed, it has now become more erratic and extreme – droughts are interspersed with heavy downpours which can last thirty minutes or more. In these conditions the top soil suffers, washed away as run-off from the hilly plantations. To improve conditions, some of the larger plantations are installing irrigation systems. However, this is a costly expense for a rain-fed crop.

Meanwhile, the dry spells between downpours are perfect breeding conditions for pests such as the looper caterpillar, thrips and the tea mosquito. The rise of pests has decreased the yield and the quality of Assam tea, while subsequent increases in the use of pesticides has raised plantation costs. Under these circumstances, tea has become an expensive crop for large-scale manufacturers such as Tata global beverages (parent company of Tetley) and Mcleod Russel. India is in danger of losing more business to competitors from China, Sri Lanka and Kenya who are already exceeding it in tea exports.

Untitled-4Top five worldwide tea producers and exporters, measured in metric tons (Image: Sustainable Trade Initiative)These changes in climate are beginning to make matters much worse for the adivasi people (or ‘tea tribes’) who have worked the 800 Assam plantations for over a century. Their predecessors were brought to the region from central India as indentured labourers for the British East India Trading company in 1850, and have since been bound to the imperfect industry with low wages, social and political disenfranchisement and poverty – arguably, all the symptoms of post-colonial society.

While the adivasi’s daily wage was raised in February from 95 to 115 rupees (around £1.20), it still remains well below the minimum daily wage of 169 rupees as prescribed by the government under the minimum wages act. As the expense around tea growing in Assam rises, firms have become non-committal to the minimum wage act. Earlier this week, chairman of the Assam Tea Planters Association (ATPA), Raj Barooah, told Reuters, ‘there has to be a fair wage that can sustain the industry’.

The issue has riled key protest group, the All Adivasi Student Association of Assam (AASAA), which condemns the ‘delaying tactics’ by the Indian government and the Indian Tea Association to implement the minimum wage act. Tensions have risen in the region as the AASAA increases its rallies, strikes and protests, calling for increased wages across the board. Social scientist and labour sociologist, Dr Sharit Bhowmik, explains that ‘the employers try to justify payment of low wages with the argument that wages in kind – subsidised food grains – compensate for the low cash amounts. However, even the prescribed rations are not distributed properly. In some plantations there are weeks and weeks of backlogs and families are delayed in receiving the rations. That is, if they receive them at all.

‘Tea plantation workers in Assam are now engaged in a battle with the employers as the latter have decided to discontinue subsidised food grains,’ continues Bhowmik. ‘The employers say that they will increase wages [to 115 rupees] only if they do not have to provide subsidised food grains.’ Critics of this position argue that such benefits are a mandatory supplement as set out by the Plantation Labour Act of 1951 and should not be lumped together with cash wages. 

As temperatures rise in the fields and tempers rise on the streets, the growers still deliberate over low wages. Assam has become an indirect example of how the repercussions of climate change will affect the poorest first and hardest.

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