A Human Rights Crisis Brews in Assam’s Tea Plantations

Originally published on Firstpost.com in June 2020.

To make a significant impact on the human rights of Assam’s tea plantation workers, businesses need to move away from the window dressing approach of corporate social responsibility (CSR) that allows them to cherry-pick issues that they wish to address. They must move to a more robust and systematic approach — one that places the protection of human rights at its core.

Each morning, millions of Indians start their day with a hot cup of chai. The custom of sipping on this sweet, milky beverage is one of the few practices that transcend class, linguistic, and religious boundaries in the country. Chai is such an integral part of the Indian cultural identity that mentioning its foreign origin almost feels blasphemous. But the truth is that before 1900, the only connection an Indian person could have had with tea was tending to British-owned plantations. Today, a majority of the tea powder used to prepare chai is sourced from Assam. However, there is little discussion around how the state became one of the biggest tea-growing regions of the world.

The first Anglo-Burmese war, which concluded in the late 1820s, resulted in the incorporation of the North-East Indian territory of Assam into the British Empire. In the 1830s, British explorers foraging this newly acquired land discovered tea forests growing in the plains of Assam. This discovery presented the British with an opportunity to break the Chinese monopoly on tea and cultivate it within the Empire. In 1848, industrial spy and botanist Robert Fortune was sent on a trip to the interiors of China to steal secrets of tea horticulture and manufacturing. In what could be called nothing short of industrial espionage, Fortune smuggled tea plants and seeds into India, to cross with the wild Assamese variety. Meanwhile, in England, resolutions were passed for a public company to be formed to scale up the Assamese tea enterprise. This company was to be called ‘The Assam Company’.

In the initial years, the company attempted to employ Assamese locals, but this did not work out well. Local labour was disinterested in plantation jobs and was hard to tie down. The quest for migrant labour began in the 1860s. During this period, the British were in the midst of recruiting a Coolie workforce — a system of indentured labour to replace the recently abolished practice of slavery. Tribal groups of Central and Eastern India were seen as fitting candidates and were deployed to colonial plantations all over the world, including Assam.

Official investigations carried out in the years 1863 and 1873 reveal that labourers in Assam were not paid the minimum wage, the recruitment process was abusive, and the poor living conditions and use of corporal punishment resulted in high mortality rates. In her paper about the recruitment of women for colonial Assam’s tea plantations, historian Dr Samita Sen describes the tea industry in India as “the most spectacularly successful colonial business enterprise”. “In the case of Assam,” she continues, “built upon a highly exploitative and draconian labour regime.”

Fast forward to present day, where the tea industry is India’s largest private sector employer, estimated to be employing around 3.5 million workers. Globally, India is the second largest producer of tea. While plantations have expanded to other parts of the country, Assam remains a key producer. Most workers employed in the state’s plantations are descendants of the Coolie workforce created 150 years ago. One would imagine that the passage of time has seen them integrate into the Assamese society and enjoy protection of their human rights as promised by independent India’s Constitution. This is, however, far from the ground reality.

Low wages, a high rate of illiteracy, coupled with the lack of alternative employment opportunities have resulted in these workers falling into a vicious circle of poverty and deprivation, one generation after the other.

Civil society organisations working to improve the situation have reported hazardous working conditions, poor healthcare facilities, gender-based discrimination, and dilapidated housing facilities. The lack of a strong labour union also results in workers getting paid lower wages than the national average. Their identity as tribal migrants and non-native Assamese leaves these workers without much agency to negotiate their terms of employment. Although the Plantation Labour Act of 1951 seeks to ensure fair treatment and socio-economic security, workers continue to be exploited because implementation is not systematic.

While these issues deserve government scrutiny, businesses must also play their part if the situation is to improve. Tea produced in Assam has a global market and is purchased by some of the biggest beverage corporations around the world. For instance, UK-based giants such as Unilever and Tata Tetley are known to purchase tea from the state. In fact, it is an indispensable component in the standard English Breakfast tea blend. This means that all English breakfast teas sold around the world are likely to contain tea sourced from Assam.

A growing number of international law practitioners and scholars have been pushing for corporations to be held accountable for the way workers are treated along their supply chains. Traditionally, ensuring labour and human rights is seen as the responsibility of governments. However, it is known that several factors, such as the level of economic development, corruption, and legal infrastructure impact the extent to which governments are able to protect workers. Corporations often maintain the stance that when it comes to the rights of workers employed in developing countries, their sole duty is to abide by national laws, even if those laws do not to meet international (or their home countries’) human rights standards.

Although some tea companies do pay attention to Assam and have supported or devised specific programmes to address human rights-related problems in the region, issues are not tackled in a systematic manner. On the whole, the gap between the situation on the ground and what companies report on Assam is striking. To make a significant impact on the human rights of plantation workers, businesses need to move away from the window dressing approach of corporate social responsibility (CSR) that allows them to cherry-pick issues that they wish to address. They must instead move to a more robust approach — one that places the protection of human rights at its core. Such an approach would entail acknowledging and identifying human rights issues in the supply chain, reporting about them in a transparent manner, and implementing strategies to ensure that all workers are protected to a degree that is seen as at par with international standards.

This shift may happen soon, at least for European companies. Several European countries are currently working towards implementing a human rights due diligence legislation. This would mean that companies are required to not only report but also to act to prevent, mitigate and redress human rights violations throughout their supply chains. This novel approach, embedding the UN Guiding Principles into law, could be a game-changer for Assam workers.


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