Globalization and Labor Stir It Up on the Plantations of Bengal

Our convoy of vans maneuvered through the roads of Northern West Bengal in the northeast of India, past vast stretches of tea gardens (plantations) in varying shades of green. We were close to the Himalayas, in an area called Duars, adjacent to Darjeeling, a name that has become synonymous with the most refined tea.

These are the very tea gardens that have identified India with one of the most popular drinks today. India, after all, is the second largest producer of tea in the world.

The plantations began in colonial times when they used to be run inhumanely with workers working and living in bonded labor like conditions. After the independence of India from the British, a comprehensive labor code for the plantation workers under the Plantation Labour Act was passed by the Indian parliament in 1951.

As a result, tea garden workers are more organized and have the right to collective bargaining. The industry has been dominated by a few monopolizing multinational companies - such as Unilever (Brooke Bond/Lipton), Cadbury Schweppes, Tatas and Associated British Foods -- who have made their fortunes in these plantations.

Over 1.5 million workers work in India's tea industry, traditionally one of India's most important and profitable industries. Yet tea gardens are facing closures and lockouts around the country. Why are India's tea plantation workers in so much trouble when tea continues to reign supreme among consumers across the world?

Today, tea plantation owners give a litany of woes which have become familiar and ominous to the labor movement across the world--profit margins have dropped, competition from Sri Lanka and Kenya is stiff, cost of production is too high and so on. We know what follows: arbitrary pressure on productivity; reduction in wages; elimination of benefits; closures; lock outs; and de-unionization.

The mantra is "cut the cost of production," and invest the huge profits not in compensating labor but in the marketing end of the industry, in creating and promoting a profusion of brand names, the logic being that the retail end is where the profits lie. We, the tea drinkers, are the targets of such marketing and we see a growing diversity of branded tea products in beautiful packaging filling up the shelves. We pay well for the numerous choices; but at the place of origin where the tea leaves are grown and plucked, the prices have plunged, the workers and their families are dying.


Vaskar Nandy, who has been organizing in North Bengal for a few decades and has built independent unions of tea garden workers, says, "The ordinary tea drinker in India would not know that tea prices have crashed. Over the period of the crash from 1999 to 2002, retail prices rose by 3 percent, and the trend continues till date. This clearly shows that demand is not stagnating or declining."

The mystery behind the dramatic fall in prices, even as retail prices go up, lies in India's auction system -- where tea is bought and sold--which dates back to colonial times. According to Nandy, "The auction organizers and the auction houses are very few in number and there are only a handful of very powerful formerly British-owned houses that call all the tunes.

The powerful lobbies controlling tea have long denied what many people knew about the tea auctions, i.e., they are run less than transparently, thereby hiding price fixing, black money deals and big player control. The book value of an auction sale often bears very little resemblance to the actual value." Price fixing allows tea to be sold at a pittance at the auctions so that huge profits can be realized at the retail end.

Ashim Roy, of the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI, an initiative in India aiming to build a federation of independent trade unions) believes that in order to avoid plantation labor laws and regulations, the companies shut down these plantations, separate out the production steps that would normally take place within a plantation-from the growing of tea leaves to its processing and packaging-into several intermediate steps outside the plantation system.



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The companies want small growers that employ contract labor to pluck the leaves, which then get sold to factories that process them, and so on, till the retail end. At each step, value gets added and in order for the highest profit margin, the difference in cost between the first step and the last must also be the highest. Therefore, the multinationals want to reduce the cost of labor to a bare pittance and destroy unionization.


The West Bengal Network on the Right to Food and Work, a human rights organization, reports that "deaths due to starvation in the plantations ... with the average number of deaths per year increasing by 241 percent after closure of the plantations.... families that were consuming 1,200 to 2,900 calories per person per day before closure were now surviving on as little as 200 calories per person per day. ...a level of consumption of 850 calories per day is considered the minimum for survival. Case studies of families of some children who had died recently revealed that monthly incomes for these families were as low as 50 Rupees ($1.20) per capita."

The managers typically begin reneging on wage payments, benefits and other amenities for some months before actually abandoning the plantations. They may strip the plantations of their assets, misappropriate massive funds, before literally running off overnight. Such closures amount to illegal lock-outs as the workers get no notice.

The health support system on the plantations collapse and with no transport facilities in these isolated and closed plantations, workers and their families are literally stranded. In one plantation that I have visited, people who were surely dying, were simply taken to the hospital only to die - the building itself has nothing in it except the dying waiting to die. Once the managers leave, all infrastructure maintained by them simply turns off - such as drinking water, sanitation, and electricity. Children stop going to school - either schools have closed or the families are unable to afford them.

Due to the isolated surroundings of the plantations, the workers who have worked there for generations find no other work. They cannot get food elsewhere other than the food rations that the employers would give them. The one demand they have is "Open the gardens, we want to work."

West Bengal is ruled by the Left Front government led by the Communist Part of India (Marxist) - it is the only state in India in which the Communist Party has been in power since mid 1970s. Since India began the so-called New Economic Policies in the 1990s as part of its move into the global economy dictated by neo-liberal policies, the State Government of West Bengal, after mouthing protests, has gradually fallen in line.

The CPI(M) is now aggressively pursuing multinational capital and World Bank funding, and does not want to send wrong signals to incoming capital about "labor unrest."

Trade unions in India are primarily connected to political parties which limit their political independence. In the case of tea gardens, the unions connected to the CPI(M) on the plantations are ruled by their political ties and have not mounted significant resistance.

Due to the isolated surroundings of the plantations, the workers who have worked there for generations find no other work. They cannot get food elsewhere other than the food rations that the employers would give them. The one demand they have is "Open the gardens, we want to work."

Local union organizers advocate the formation of workers' cooperatives. Workers believe that they can save themselves and the gardens and are willing to invest their labor and resources in doing so. The government has, so far, shown no interest in doing so.

Anannya Bhattacharjee is currently based in India and was involved in the organizing of the World Social Forum IV in Mumbai, India in 2004.