Over 400,000 workers on Indian tea plantations that supply the world’s largest tea companies have gone on strike over the government’s failure to implement a promised daily wage increase from £1.70 to £3.70 a day.
The past week has seen around 250 tea estates across the Assam region close, with the partial closure of a further 20.
Assam accounts for the production of half of India’s annual 1,235m kgs of tea leaves.
For years, the owners of the vast plantations in Assam have been accused of under-paying and exploiting workers. Campaigners have reported that workers have little access to clean water, work in unsanitary and dangerous conditions and have their fundamental human rights undermined.
In 2018, the Indian government had agreed to raise the daily wage from the current figure of 167 rupees to 350 rupees, but has failed to implement the decision. There are fears that, after consulting tea estate owners, the government will backtrack on its promise and move to significantly lessen the increase.
“We don’t know why it’s taking so long. There is a total lack of political will to push through the increase,” said Barnabas Kindo, adviser to Pahjra, a group that campaigns for tea workers’ rights.
Binoja Horo, 34, has worked as tea plucker for 16 years at Helem tea estate, along with her husband. She said it is becoming increasingly difficult to meet the family’s basic household expenses.
“The only way we manage is by not buying any clothes. When the children ask for a certain food item, we say no. We have to keep saying no all the time to everything they ask. I need this wage rise but I don’t know if it will happen,” she said.
Rupesh Gowala, general secretary of worker union Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha, said the agitation has to be kept up and probably intensified. “If we don’t get the wage we were promised soon, we are going to launch a more aggressive campaign.”
The wage issue is set to become more complicated because a state election in Assam is due next April. “It is bound to get totally politicised and then there’s even less chance that the increase will happen,” said a civil servant, who did not want to be named.