Tea workers of Assam not only get paid less compared to the workers of other tea growing states in India — Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka — but also get less than one fourth of the ‘living wage of Rs 884, a study, involving IIT-Bombay, revealed.
The study by Oxfam India, a confederation of 20 independent charitable organisations headquartered in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, and Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, revealed that there exists a growing incidence of contractualisation in the tea plantation sector in Assam.
“Only 39 per cent of workers can be considered as permanent workers, while the remaining 61 per cent are temporary workers when social security and other mandated provisions under the Plantation Labour Act (PLA) are taken into consideration,” said the study.
It said that Assam tea plantation workers’ daily wage is the lowest with respect to daily wages of tea plantations in Kerala (Rs 403), Tamil Nadu (Rs 333) and Karnataka (Rs 349).
An upward revision has been long due. In February, Assam tea plantation workers wages were increased by Rs 50 but the High Court stayed the order citing discrepancies in the administrative process and notifications.
After the March-April assembly polls, the state government gave an order to hike the daily wage of around 10 lakh tea plantation workers by Rs 38.
With this hike, the tea workers in Brahmaputra Valley, mostly in eastern Assam, would get Rs 205 from the previous Rs 167, and those in Barak Valley (southern Assam) would get Rs 183 from the earlier Rs 145.
The study titled “In Defense of Living Wages for Tea Plantation Workers: Evidence from Assam” — was jointly done by Oxfam India and Rahul Suresh Sapkal, Assistant Professor, Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay.
The study was conducted with 5,000 tea plantation workers spread across the seven eastern Assam districts — Biswanath, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Lakhimpur, Tezpur, Golaghat and Sivasagar — during October to December, 2020.
According to the estimates of this study, for workers to have a dignified life, the compensation should include Rs 285 per day as expenditure on food items (considering four members in family) and Rs 599 per day as expenditure on non-food items, both essential and non-essential utilities.
“Therefore, the living wage for a worker should be Rs 884 per day for a decent living in the tea plantation sector.
“The proposed living wage is 81 per cent higher than the actual wages workers receive and 54 per cent higher than the National Minimum Wage suggested by the Anup Satpathy Committee (2019) which is Rs 342 for Assam,” the study said.
It said that prior to the Covid-19 crisis, only seven per cent women workers reported access to maternity leave and a mere two per cent were able to access the facility for children’s education offered by their employers.
The study considers the ‘living wage’ in relation to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) concept of ‘decent work’ and ‘quality of life’.
A ‘living wage’ is beyond mere survival and should enable meaningful participation in the society which includes supporting a family, recreation, and saving against future risks.
“It considers the well-being of the workers and is a wage that enables a worker to afford a ‘decent’ standard of living for herself and her family. In the Indian context, the concept of Living Wages is enshrined in the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment in 1991,” the study said.
It said that during the nationwide lockdown last year, only 10 per cent (of the 5,000 workers) of the respondents have worked, as the only tasks performed in that period were fumigation and sewage draining.
“The remaining workers were unemployed for the entire duration of the lockdown. Women were more severely impacted by the lockdown and were not able to work for 45 days on an average, while for men the duration was 33 days.”
Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India, said: “The study is the voice of tea workers and we believe that the findings will make all stakeholders in tea sector to work for their welfare.”
“The study finds a stark gap between the current wages that tea workers receive vis a vis the living wages that has been calculated. We appeal to the government and tea industry to consider an upward revision of the wages to improve the lives of the tea workers.”
Assam, which produces roughly 55 per cent of India’s tea, has more than 10 lakh tea workers in the organised sector, working in about 850 big estates. Besides, there are lakhs of small tea gardens owned by individuals.
The tea belts of Brahmaputra and Barak valleys are home to more than 60 lakh people.
(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at email@example.com)