A report by Oxfam International likely to discourage UK supermarkets from sourcing tea in Assam, due to working conditions at origin, incited a storm locally with tea planters who warned Oxfam to retract its findings. Critics questioned the methods Oxfam India used to calculate wages and cited a miscalculation of worker benefits in the report.
Oxfam is a confederation of 20 independent charitable organizations focusing on the alleviation of global poverty, with its headquarters in Kenya, a major tea exporting country. Assam produces more than half of India’s tea.
The Oxfam study was conducted jointly with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the UK’s Bureau for the Appraisal of Social Impacts for Citizen Information (BASIC). The report, titled ‘Addressing the Human Cost of Assam Tea’ — An agenda for change to respect, protect and fulfill human rights on Assam tea plantations, is based on interviews with 510 workers at 50 tea estates supplying international tea brands and supermarket private label brands.
“Workers on tea plantations in the Assam region of India are systematically denied their rights to a living wage and decent working and living conditions,” according to the report, adding, “Half of households interviewed receive government ‘below poverty line’ ration cards. A third experience recurrent debt. Some workers have remained in the same pay grade for 15-20 years.”
Oxfam International writes that “the root causes are deeply embedded in the history and evolution of the Indian tea industry, which has led to a pervasive inequality of power between the women and men who produce tea and the brands and supermarkets that sell it to consumers.”
“For every kilogram of packaged Assam tea that is sold, tea brands and supermarkets take a sizable cut – up to 95% in some cases – while a marginal proportion – less than 5% ‒ remains on tea estates to pay workers,” according to the Oxfam report.
Planters responded: “Suggesting in any way that people should stop sourcing tea from Assam is not only irresponsible, it is demeaning to everyone who has put their sweat, blood, and tears into maintaining the quality and efficiency of a tax-paying industry which supports not only the people working for them but all ancillary businesses built around it.”
India Tea Association secretary general Arijit Raha told The Hindu, Oxfam’s study came to conclusions on issues based on findings in some tea gardens that did not reflect the true picture of the industry.
“The study has drawn reference through an illustration on how much of the price consumers pay for tea is received by the worker. The analysis, regrettably, has left out the share of the price being paid to the producer organisations providing employment to the workers,” he said.
ITA gardens bear 50% of the social and infrastructural costs mandated by the Plantation Labour Act. Oxfam’s calculations were based on 13-hour workdays “when none in plucking worked more than seven hours a day,’ said Raha.
Conditions cited in the report could be made better, according to senior planters who provided a written rebuttal, noting “real issues that people on the ground face” include but are not limited to gender insensitivity, alcoholism, lack of proper skill-based education, and cultural taboos, according to planters.
The report notes that Assam government’s commitment to increase the minimum wages of tea plantation workers to $4.50 per day (INRs351) has met with hurdles tied to the financial viability of the sector. Last year workers in the Brahmaputra River Valley received an increase to INRs167 ($2.43) per day. Wages in the Barak Valley were increased to INRs145 ($2.11) per day. Recently workers were awarded the maximum 20% year-end holiday bonus. Nationally India legislators are pressing for a minimum wage of INRs350, a little more than $5 per day.
“As an industry, in the last 20 years, the owners and workers have survived by being equitable to each other whether it was amenities, wages, bonuses, or lock downs, thus ensuring the quality of the world’s best tea,” counter planters.
The statement continues: “Instead of maligning the reputation of over a million people which might cause further unemployment, a better way would have been to identify issues on the ground and solutions to overcome them, which is how we work. The report carelessly ‘addressed’ a few issues such as living conditions and the lack of healthcare facilities. Please note that the living conditions of housing complexes are what the people living in them make it. Workforces and their families are provided accommodation, access to healthcare, rations, job security, job prospects for future generations, over and above the wages and bonuses, they earn. Bonuses constitute approximately 20% profits in addition to the salary.”
“Supermarkets and tea brands in India retain more than half (58.2%) of the final consumer price of black processed tea sold in the country, with just 7.2% remaining for workers (using plucking costs as a proxy indicator of labor costs),” according to the report. Supermarkets and tea brands retain some INRs40.4 ($0.61) from the sale of a typical 200g package of black tea priced at INRs68.8 ($1.06) while workers collectively receive just INRs4.95 ($0.08) per pack.
- In the United States, supermarkets and tea brands receive 93.8% of the final consumer price for bagged black tea sold in the country. Oxfam calculated the amount paid laborers at 0.8% of the final price.
- In Germany, supermarkets and tea brands receive 86.5% of the final consumer price for bagged black tea sold in the country. Oxfam calculated the amount paid laborers at 1.4% of the final price.
- In the Netherlands, supermarkets and tea brands receive 83.7% of the final consumer price for bagged black tea sold in the country. Oxfam calculated the amount paid laborers at 2.9% of the final price.
- In the United Kingdom, supermarkets and tea brands receive 66.8% of the final consumer price for bagged black tea sold in the country. Oxfam calculated the amount paid laborers at 4% of the final price.
Workers on tea estates in Assam currently receive the equivalent of just $0.04 per 100g of bagged black tea sold to consumers. Increasing this amount by the equivalent $0.10 would enable a living wage, according to Oxfam.
Oxfam ethical trade manager Rachel Wilshaw was quoted in The Telegraph: “Despite some pockets of good practice, supermarkets’ relentless pursuit of profits continues to fuel poverty and human rights abuses in their supply chains. “Supermarkets must do more to end exploitation, pay all their workers a living wage, ensure women get a fair deal, and be more transparent about where they source their products.”
She added: “Supermarkets are snapping up the lion’s share of the price we pay at the till but the workers who toil for hours to harvest tea and fruit face inhumane working conditions and are paid so little they can’t even feed their families.”
Peter Andrews, head of sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC) which represents the UK’s major supermarkets said, “our members are working hard to address existing injustices and continue to collaborate internationally with charities and business groups on this vital issue.”
Oxfam India enlisted a Bollywood actor who hails from Assam to campaign on their behalf in a one-minute video clip. In the clip he uses poetry to describe the “pathetic” condition of the labor force in the Assam. Actor Adil Hussain, star of the show English Vinglish and a member of the cast of Star Trek: Discovery, described the plight of workers who refrain from drinking water when they are thirsty due to sanitary concerns.
He says (loosely translated from Hindi): “The thing about the tea estate workers is different here (Assam). They don’t drink too much water because there is neither a bathroom, nor the freedom to use it.”
“The truth behind these smiling faces is really something else. The helplessness of those exploited for 160 years is something else after all.”
Support us as we work together to uplift the conditions of over a million tea estate workers, appeals Hussian.
The planters said if one really wanted to ease the plight of the workers, they should encourage more people to invest in Assam tea and source more of the tea directly from the gardens to ensure that there is enough money to pay suggested daily wages so they can “go over and above providing alternate income sources, education, and a better lifestyle for the workforces and their families.”
The industry is experiencing an “obvious lurch” with tea sales at an all-time low. Prices at auction are determined on the whims of blenders, traders, brokers, and other middlemen, not on the owners or the workers, they say.
Unless the report by Oxfam is retracted, the group of planters warned that researchers may not be welcomed as in the past. “If they ever come back for any purpose, research, development, or otherwise, they might face a lot of opposition, not by the management, but by the workforce itself.”
“Generalising based on inaccurate facts harms the reputation of the industry and its workers and also tarnishes the image of Indian tea, which has a pride of place in the world,” said ITA’s Raha.