Pregnant tea workers balance the weight of their unborn child and the tea basket on their back, working as long as practical to earn money to meet their baby’s needs.
This double burden takes its toll in the nutritional wellbeing of both mother and child, a concern being addressed by the Assam state government. A few weeks ago Assam agreed to a program providing an additional INRs12,000 ($172 per year) to tea workers when pregnant. Workers typically earn $2.43 per day for harvesting 42 kilograms of green leaf. There are 50,000 pregnant tea garden workers who currently qualify for the program. Assam tea gardens employ 1.1 million permanent workers and one million seasonal workers, typically employed from April through November.
Anemia and maternal mortality for Adivasi women working on tea plantations in Assam is unusually high, according to Nazdeek, a legal empowerment organization working on rights issues for marginalized communities.
Assam has the highest maternal mortality rate in India, with 363 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. According to Nazdeek, about 50 percent of pregnant women aged between 15 and 49 are anemic, a leading contributor to maternal mortality.
After Parliament passed the amended Maternity Benefit Bill in 2016, most of the states started to increase maternity leave to 26 weeks for women employees in their respective states, according to NE Now.
Last week Assam also extended maternity leave to 26 weeks, easing the concerns of workers who previously were entitled to only 12 weeks leave with pay.
The amended Maternity Benefit Act of 1961 also requires businesses that employ 50 or more workers to provide crèche facilities within a prescribed distance. Woman are allowed four visits to the crèche in a day, according to PRS Legislative Research. The extension applies to first-time mothers and those with two children. Maternity leave for a third child and more is limited to 12 weeks.
The law introduces maternity leave up to 12 weeks for women who adopt a child younger than three months. Leave is calculated from the date the child is handed over to the adoptive or commissioning mother.
The World Health Organization recommends at least 24 weeks of maternity leave to protect maternal and child health. Increased attention by non-governmental organizations including the Ethical Tea Partnership along with academic studies and media have led to improvements in working conditions and medical care such as the availability of ambulances and mobile care vans. The Tea Board of India is currently considering funding the construction of additional schools in Assam.