CONTROVERSY: Tea estates in India have faced closures

GROUP REJECTS ALLEGATIONS OF POOR CONDITIONS BY CHARITIES

THE World Bank group defended the treatment of tea pickers at an Indian project it funds with the multination­al Tata Global Beverages, dismissing criticism that thousands of workers were living in poor conditions.

Four charities said little progress had been made to protect workers at India’s second largest tea producer in the northeast state of Assam – despite the World Bank group’s own watchdog raising concerns over low wages and poor housing.

The International Finance Corpora­tion (IFC) – which is part of the World Bank group – invested $7.8 million in the $87m project to help preserve jobs and raise standards for workers, but had been criticised for failing to do this.

However, an IFC spokesman said more funds have been allocated to improve liv­ing standards, and employee councils formed to address complaints and boost workers’ say in company decisions.

“There are the long-standing chal­lenges within the tea industry in India. Across Assam and other tea planta­tions, poverty is deeply entrenched,” Frederick Jones said. “Despite the many challenges, Tata and IFC remain forces for good in the sector.”

The tea industry in Assam, the world’s largest growing area, has been in crisis for years with accusations of slave labour and trade unions demand­ing better wages while tea estate own­ers refused. Tea estates have faced clo­sures due to various reasons, including labour disputes.

Around 30,000 tea workers are em­ployed by Amalgamated Plantations Pri­vate Ltd (APPL) – a joint venture with the IFC and Tata Global Beverages (TGB).

APPL was set up in 2009 to acquire and manage tea plantations previously owned by TGB, which owns Tetley, the second-largest tea brand in the world.

TGB owns just less than half of APPL and the IFC 20 per cent, while the remain­der is held by workers and smaller firms.

Complaints by charities and unions about exploitation of tea pickers prompted an IFC watchdog probe in 2014.

The watchdog’s findings in Novem­ber last year found APPL had failed to identify and address complaints of low wages, poor housing and sanitation, and exposure to hazardous pesticides without adequate protection.

The investigation also found IFC’s investment supported an employee share-purchase programme in which APPL misrepresented the risks of buy­ing stock, resulting in workers incur­ring debts.

Despite promises to improve condi­tions, a report this month by four civil society groups – PAJHRA, PAD, Naz­deek and Accountability Counsel – said little has changed.

“Living conditions continue to re­main oppressive and unsafe for tea workers, with crumbling housing, squalid sanitation, the absence of toi­lets and unclean drinking water,” said Stephen Ekka, Director of PAJHRA, an Assam-based charity.

The IFC and APPL also failed to pro­vide safety training or ensure basic protection gear for pesticides, he said. APPL dismissed the report’s findings as inaccurate.

A company statement said wages were in line with salary laws for the sec­tor and safety and medical care provi­sions in place.

TGB said despite problems faced by India’s tea industry, APPL was commit­ted to better the lives of its workers.

(Thomson Reuters Foundation)