Black Tea: the Social Cost of Assam Tea

Originally published on FoodUnfolded September 2020.

Its deep, malty flavour makes it popular among tea connoisseurs around the world. Its status as an in-demand and import-worthy agricultural commodity makes it important for the Indian economy.

One sixth of the world’s tea comes from Assam, a state in North East India. Often found in various black tea blends, one would imagine that workers engaged in growing and harvesting this valuable tea crop enjoy benefits like attractive wages, employment security, and fair working conditions. But the truth is, those who produce Assam tea are trapped in a system comparable to modern-day slavery.1   


To understand the situation of Assam tea workers, it is important to first understand the history of tea plantations in India. When the First Anglo-Burmese War ended in the late 1820s, the Indian territory of Assam was absorbed into the British Empire.2 After foraging this newly-acquired land, British explorers discovered tea forests growing in the plains of Assam.2 By 1848, the British had begun cultivating black tea within their Empire, breaking the Chinese monopoly on tea and establishing their own tea enterprise ‘The Assam Company’.


In its early years, The Assam Company attempted to employ Assamese locals, but this did not work out well.5 Local workers were uninterested in the labour-intensive plantation jobs. Company administrators also regarded them as unreliable and hard to tie down because of their opium addiction.2 During the 1860s, in their quest for migrant labour, the British were 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 by Victorian ‘race scientists’ and were deployed to colonial plantations all over the world, including Assam.2 Records from official investigations between 1863 and 1873 reveal that labourers in Assam were tricked or coerced into recruitment, paid below the minimum wage (if at all), and the poor living conditions and use of corporal punishment resulted in high mortality rates.2


Today, the tea industry is India’s largest private sector employer and is estimated to be employing around 10 million workers.6 Globally, India is the second largest producer of tea after China.6 While plantations have expanded to other parts of the country, Assam remains a key tea growing region and produces more than half of India’s tea harvest. 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. However, this is far from what actually occurs.1

Civil society organisations working to improve the labourers’ 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 them without much agency to negotiate their terms of employment.7 Although Indian public law seeks to ensure fair treatment and socio-economic security, workers continue to be exploited because of inconsistent legal enforcement and lack of access to legal aid.1


Traditionally, ensuring labour and human rights is seen as the responsibility of governments. However, 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 their sole duty is to abide by national laws when it comes to the rights of workers they employ in developing countries, even if those laws do not to meet international (or their home countries’) human rights standards.1


While these issues deserve government scrutiny, businesses must also play their part if the situation is to improve. Black 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. 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.1


While corporate disclosure on human rights issues remains largely voluntary, some countries such as the UK require large companies to report on the human rights issues in their supply chains via annual Modern Slavery Reports. When modern slavery reports by UK-based tea companies are analysed, we see that some of them do in fact pay attention to Assam and have supported or devised specific programmes to address human rights-related problems in the region.1

However, issues often fail to be tackled in a systematic manner. This means that companies downplay the seriousness of the situation or report only about specific initiatives that show their support of workers (for instance, education initiatives or health camps). While this is more helpful than not reporting at all, it does not address the reality of the situation. For corporate disclosure to be truly meaningful, companies must report on all issues that the workers face – even the ones that they have not yet acted upon.1 

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 consistent and transparent  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 are at par with international standards.1


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 means that the law would require companies to not only report but also to act and prevent, mitigate and redress human rights violations throughout their supply chains. As reporting has largely been a voluntary option, this novel approach, embedding the UN Guiding Principles into law, might push companies to take their responsibility to respect the human rights of workers rights more seriously. For the tea plantation workers in Assam, this would mean that international companies purchasing from them will be held accountable by the governments in their home countries.1


  1. Rao & Bernaz (2020). “Corporate Responsibility for Human Rights in Assam Tea Plantations – A Business and Human Rights Approach.” Accessed 10 September 2020.
  2. Sharma, J. (2009). “‘Lazy’ Natives, Coolie Labour, and the Assam Tea Industry”. Accessed 17 July 2020.
  3. “For All the Tea in China: Espionage, empire and the secret formula for the world’s favourite drink.” Random House. 2013. Accessed 20 July 2020.
  4. Antrobus, H. A. (1957). “A History of the Assam Company, 1839-1953.” Accessed 16 July 2020.
  5. Behal, R. P. (2010). “Coolie drivers or benevolent paternalists? British tea planters in Assam and the indenture labour system”. Accessed 20 July 2020.
  6. “Tea Industry”. Indian Institute of Foreign Trade. 2011. Accessed 20 July 2020.
  7. “The More Things Change – The World Bank, Tata and Enduring Abuses on India’s Tea Plantations”. Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute. Accessed 21 July 2020.

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