COVID-19 Has Pushed India's Already Suffering Tea Plantation Workers into Deeper Crisis

Tea workers are forced to live hand-to-mouth under normal circumstances. They will not be able to fight the consequences of contracting COVID-19. 

The spread of COVID-19 has put India in the midst of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Not only do we have to battle a threatening pandemic with a neglected healthcare system, we also have to take absolute steps to prevent its escalation in a country of 1.3 billion people.

Unfortunately, the success in containing the virus necessitates the slowing down of economic activity. 

Undoubtedly, this has grave consequences for the economy. Former RBI governor, Raghuram Rajan has gone so far as to say that, “Economically speaking, India is faced today with perhaps its greatest emergency since Independence.”

The International Labour Organization forecast has it that “…about 400 million workers in the informal sector are at the risk of falling deeper into poverty during the crisis.” In response to such dire circumstances, civil society has been compelled to play a significant role in preventing large-scale starvation

As images of the many crumbling sectors of the economy continue to emerge, the primary focus of “lockdown 3.0” has been to start reviving operations, by allowing relaxations for specific industries. 

The tea industry started pushing for such easing of norms soon after the nationwide lockdown was first announced. They are in a particularly fragile position during this economic crisis.

The industry is not only trying to stay afloat in the midst of an economically tumultuous time, the lockdown also started right in the peak plucking season, which has adversely impacted production and import. 

As an immediate solution to keeping up with global market demands, the Indian Tea Association had written to the state government on April 4, stating their wish for the “resumption of normal operations in tea gardens while adhering to the prescribed safety and social distancing guidelines.”

On the basis of such requests, work resumed in some plantations with permission from state administrations as early as the 10th of April and, in the latest lockdown phase, “tea industries and workers engaged are allowed to operate at all times.” 

Also read: Will Migrants’ Lockdown Experiences Become the Debris of History That Reaches the Sky?

However, in the context of tea plantations in the state of Assam, this begs the question of what “normal” even looks like. And does this “normal” really enable the practice of critical safety measures such as social distancing? 

The human cost

Approximately seven lakh workers are engaged in the tea industry in Assam. Women form over 60% of the workforce and are the ones primarily engaged in the indispensable work of leaf plucking. Workers earn an illegally low daily wage of Rs 167 per day. 

In addition to this abysmal wage, workers in most plantations do not have access to adequate ration, water or sanitation facilities on a regular basis. Anaemia and malnutrition are particularly prevalent among the women and it is very common for men engaged in pesticide spraying to contract tuberculosis, other lung complications and loss of vision due to lack of protective gear and safety measures. 

The healthcare facilities within and outside the plantations are grossly inadequate and ill-equipped to manage or treat the particular health conditions and vulnerabilities of the workers.

Such conditions have led to the very high maternal and infant mortality rates in the plantations. If these are the circumstances for work on a regular basis, there is little reason to believe that adequate precautions will be taken in times of COVID-19. The industry’s preparedness to deal with an outbreak within such a vulnerable population is, at best, questionable due to the lack of health infrastructure, a lack of quarantine facilities and the availability of testing as well as treatment. 

The industry has cited financial crises every time it has been confronted with the reality of workers’ lives, with representatives going so far as to say, “Our job is to produce tea, and the challenge right now is to sustain the industry.”

Tea plantation workers in Assam pluck leaves while it rains. Credit: Nazdeek

Tea plantation workers in Assam pluck leaves while it rains. Credit: Nazdeek

Activists and collectives on the ground have rightfully questioned the prudence of the state and central governments in not playing a more active role in prioritising the safety of workers. 

Despite several recommendations from state and central governments to not deduct wages of employees during this time, in many plantations, workers had not even received their daily wage or ration from the companies for a month after the initial lockdown, which only aggravated their risk.

Also read: In Odisha’s Villages, Returning Migrant Workers Stare at Severe Uncertainty

This also means that rather than giving their informed consent to work and support the industry, workers are coming back to plantations at risk of exposure out of desperation and compulsion. In the meantime, temporary, non-contractual workers of the tea plantations remain all but forgotten with no social security, work benefits, wages or food for as long as, one can assume, the industry gets back on its feet. With many state governments now suspending critical labour laws to support industries, tea workers in Assam risk even further vulnerability if the state were to follow suit. 

The biggest lesson learnt globally about minimising the impact of COVID-19 is social distancing. In a country as large as India, where so many people living in poverty do not have the luxury of practicing social distancing in reality, the window to enforce these precautionary measures is short and critical. 

India has thus far managed to fare even better than many developed countries because of prompt implementation of these norms. As noted economist Amartya Sen writes:

“The trade-off was that we take a huge hit with the visible impact of the disease, or we give ourselves some time to prepare and risk the economic consequences, and I’m glad that they chose the latter.”

While that stands true for most of the country, Assam’s tea plantations have dangerously, and one could even say erroneously, chosen the former. 

Tea plantation workers live in close quarters in homes with very limited space. To take a chance by putting workers back to work in the plantations while the healthcare infrastructure is so poor, while testing rates are so low and most importantly, while no known treatment or vaccine is in place, is a lapse of judgement that could come at the irretrievable cost of human life. 

Is there a way forward?

The tea industry’s survival is not removed from the interests of workers. In fact, because of the generational poverty and poor living and working conditions, losses faced by the industry become matters of life and death for them. As IMF’s chief economist, Gita Gopinath, pointed out in a recent interview, “It is not economists and market experts but health experts who will be able to tell when the economy can recover.” 

Also read: Labour Law Reform: Was a Sledgehammer Needed When Employment Itself Is Uncertain?

The more the disease spreads, the longer and stricter the restriction on work becomes, the more the economy suffers.

Therefore, returning to “normal” cannot be the way forward in the context of tea plantation workers. Their “normal” has led to them having pre-existing health and environmental conditions that make them highly vulnerable to the COVID-19. While starvation, illness and acute poverty continue to plague the lives of workers, COVID-19 will be the least of their worries.

At the same time, the pandemic remains a huge health risk to the workers, as it does all over the world. This is a situation that calls for a radical restructuring of the conditions that have led to this crisis. 

With the industry facing financial difficulties, it falls to the government to aid tea companies in acting swiftly and promptly to ensure that workers are able to live a safe and healthy life with dignity during this difficult period.

Providing a stimulus package for workers to receive a living wage during the continued lockdown period, unconditional transfer of money for past non-work days, providing workers with PPE kits, clean water and soap, adequate, unconditional ration and increased access to testing and basic healthcare facilities are some of the very basic measures that need to be taken to keep workers safe from the disease.

While workers are forced to live hand-to-mouth and remain burdened with the question of everyday survival, they will not be able to fight the consequences of contracting COVID-19. 

The prime minister in his address on April 14 stated that “if we see it (the lockdown) from a purely economic perspective, it certainly seems like a huge cost to pay. We have had to pay a huge price. But for the lives of the people of India, this cost is nothing.”

This is a valuable reminder of the most important lesson learnt during this crisis, namely that we cannot “save” the economy by exposing vulnerable workers to a fatal disease. The need of the hour is to focus on containing the spread of the disease and saving lives so we can emerge stronger and build back the economy together.

Shreya Sen is a feminist researcher and human rights activist working on labour rights and access to justice issues with marginalised communities in South Asia.