India, the world's fifth largest economy, has suffered immensely from the COVID-19 pandemic. The unemployment rate reached 24% in May, and left day laborers, like those who tend the tea plantations in the country, face poverty and hunger due to the scarcity of work and the lack of assistance from the Government.
By April, many returned to work despite the restrictions implemented in the country by COVID-19, even if they did not have enough health care or security measures in place.
The truth about tea
India is one of the largest tea producers in the world. Two regions in particular, Assam and West Bengal, together account for more than 70% of the country's tea production. The sector is the second largest generator of formal employment in India; employs more than a million families on tea plantations. A staggering 70% of these workers are women, who are paid very low wages and made to work in deplorable conditions.
As a result, most of these women live without dignity, a difficult situation depicted in the #TruthAboutTea (The Truth About Tea) campaign, a series broadcast on YouTube by the non-profit organization Oxfam India. The series argues that even before the pandemic, workers have been living in unsanitary conditions, surviving as best they could on ridiculous wages and with almost no access to health and education systems.
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According to the video, on average, a plantation worker walks 16 km and carries 24 kg of tea leaves each day, earning a daily wage of about 150 Indian rupees. This is equivalent to two US dollars after 13 hours of work. Only 87% of workers earn the maximum salary of Rs 4,500 (US $ 61) per month.
Some work barefoot and only a small percentage are given protective equipment such as gloves, masks and boots. Women are sometimes forced to return to work within a few days of giving birth, and there are not enough daycare centers that function properly for the babies. In addition, there are no toilets on the tea plantations, and several workers also do not have a bathroom at home.
The human cost of tea production in India is high; Deprived of basic rights, workers and their families say they feel enslaved by the owners of the tea plantations.
When India entered the first stage of isolation from COVID-19 on March 25, several plantations closed. By April 4, the Tea Association of India had sent a statement to the Government in which it requested “to resume the normal activity of the tea plantations in compliance with current security and social distancing measures.”
Concerned about the economic effects, the journalist Pratim Ranjan Bose questioned the isolation measures, but also pointed out the “stigmatization suffered by the sector that works in the plantations with regard to matters of sanitation, health and hygiene.”
However, the government allowed some plantations to resume operations only as of April 10. Upon arrival in the third stage of isolation (from May 4 to 17), the normal operation of the plantations was authorized, despite the fact that the health facilities available to workers were not sufficiently equipped to treat patients with COVID-19.
Plantation guilds in northern India soon began to send police complaints about breach of isolation, but at the time people were more worried for the economy than for the well-being of plantation workers.
Harihar Nagbansi, a community correspondent for VideoVolunteers, whose family works and lives at the Bhatkawa tea plantation in West Bengal, reported:
While the whole country is under lockdown to combat coronavirus, work continues as is in the tea estates of (the) Alipurduar district of West Bengal. These estates are in such far off areas that information regarding the virus has not reached everyone and they are willing to work without any protective (gear). Quite obviously, the tea garden owners also don't care what this pandemic will do to these workers.
While the entire country is isolated to combat the coronavirus, tea plantations in the Alipurduar district of West Bengal continue to operate. The plantations are so remote that information about the virus has not reached everyone, and some are willing to go to work without any (protective) equipment. Needless to say, plantation owners have no interest in the consequences of this pandemic or what it will do to workers.
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As of September 5, coronavirus cases in India have exceeded four million, about 0.3% of the total population.
In West Bengal, there are about 174,659 cases and 3,452 deaths; Assam has approximately 121,224 cases and 345 deaths. However, to date there is no information available on how various tea plantation workers became infected with coronavirus.
According to a report from a joint initiative of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Indian Tea Association (ITA), day laborers in these two regions have successfully prevented COVID-19 from It will reach the plantations until the third week of May. The initiative consisted of registering workers in mandatory hygiene programs to improve sanitary standards.
In another video report, this time from Madhu Tea Garden in West Bengal, Nagbansi commented that plantation workers are not working the 100-day minimum established by the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
Adding to greater difficulties in life due to COVID-19 restrictions, workers staged a protest on June 29, demanding that they be given 200 working days and that their salary be increased to 600 rupees (8 US dollars) per day:
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2KZQ1WEnak (/ embed)
Day laborers have been protesting low wages for the past few years, but have not been successful.
“Mug full of misery”
A research study published in February 2019, called “Cup Full of Miseries”, in which Subhashri Sarkar and Reji Bhuvanendran assess the salary scale of tea laborers, revealed that the tea industry in India is in crisis.
Stiff competition, rising production costs and the closure of several tea plantations due to falling demand have resulted in large losses that hamper the sustainability of the industry.
Several factors are added to the problem of unfair wages, including the lack of interest from the administration, the lack of application of state laws and the absence of effective control by the Government.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 rates continue to rise.