Coorg's bitter brew: Bonded labour in India's biggest coffee estates

As planters continue to justify old habits, there is a slow exodus of full-time estate workers – and an influx of vulnerable migrant workers.
Coorg's bitter brew: Bonded labour in India's biggest coffee estates
Coorg's bitter brew: Bonded labour in India's biggest coffee estates
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Kodagu or Coorg in Karnataka is a coffee haven – the largest coffee producing district in the country, the land of the globally sought-after Monsoon Malabar beans, and found in every cup of coffee in homes and cafes across India.

But when seen through the eyes of coffee workers – those who pick, dry and clean the beans – Kodagu is a less romantic place. Mostly local Dalits and Adivasis, workers labour and live on estates owned largely by the Kodava community. As the estates were carved out of forests, landlords put the local tribes to work in their coffee farms, at low or no wages.

In the past two years, hundreds of these workers have begun to erupt in protest, rejecting a life of bonded labour, and demanding their rightful claim to fair wages, land, and most of all, freedom.

Some of them, like Harish, in Balele village, have had to face horrifying consequences for simply quitting their job. On August 30, 2017, Harish’s former employer Paaruvangada Kishan allegedly hunted him down, beat him, and set three dogs on him. Harish says his employer was demanding Rs 27,000 as interest for a Rs 4,000 loan – unwritten as is the practise in Kodagu – taken 18 months earlier, even though weekly instalments were deducted from his wages for over a year.

Villagers found Harish dumped on the side of the road, bleeding and half conscious. He needed four surgeries and treatment for animal bite wounds.

With the help of his extended family and local Dalit activists, Harish received treatment for dog bite wounds – torn flesh in his hands, legs and head. He filed a police complaint, and the police have charged the employer and an accomplice for culpable homicide.

The district administration declared that under the pretext of an ever-increasing loan, the employer kept Harish under bonded labour. The state government used the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act declaring him debt-free, gave him Rs 20,000 as compensation, and promised him Rs 1 lakh towards his rehabilitation. Harish is the first worker to receive this amount in Karnataka, since the 2016 rules raised the rehabilitation amount payable by the government.

Unfortunately, Harish is a broken man today. “When I sleep at night, I wake up screaming sometimes,” he says, his eyes widening in fear. “I keep imagining that dogs are chasing me.”

An open secret

Plantation owners call these stray incidents. But in truth, bonded labour in the coffee district is hidden in layers of denial, custom, silence and fear. It so deeply ingrained into the way of life that it becomes visible only when a labourer tries to break out of it.

Workers live in cramped line houses inside estates, where they work for years. The legal minimum wage is about Rs 270 for an 8-hour work day today, but they are paid under Rs 150 for 12-14 hours of work. Employers say the deduction is towards an unwritten loan, but this debt never ends.

Article 23 of the Constitution prohibits forced labour. The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, defines bonded labour as a system where a person is forced to work due to a debt or caste obligation. They are overworked, underpaid, or denied the right to work elsewhere.

Sreevidya PI, District Commissioner of Madikeri, agrees, “In many cases, there is no physical confinement, but I’ve seen people take loans and are forced to work for years for the landlord.” This is the basis today for state governments to rescue and rehabilitate bonded labourers.

Mary Prathima, Associate Director of International Justice Mission (IJM), which rescues people from bondedness across Karnataka, explains that bonded labour is commonly perceived as a relic of the past. “But the practice is thriving today in modern sectors, having evolved with time, and it is tied to finances more than feudal structures.”

The modern face of bonded labour

Today, bonded labour exists in any industry, like construction, garment and shoe factories, brick kilns, stone quarries, and domestic servitude. “It doesn’t have to always involve beatings and abuse, but it often does because of how vulnerable the worker is, by caste and financial situation,” says Mary.

IJM helped Harish receive the state compensation due to him, but they do not work in the coffee district. In fact, few activists and NGOs seem to. An official from Jeevika, an NGO that rescues bonded labourers by creating community vigilance groups in nearly all districts of Karnataka except Madikeri, explains that unlike most other regions, it has been hard to find whistleblowers among the local police, employers or even the workers.

“Everyone fears the wrath of the estate owners, who are such a tightly-knit community that they will always defend each other,” says the official, who requested anonymity.

The denial

Coffee estate owners bristle at the very mention of bonded labour. Somesh Kandera, a coffee planter for close to two decades, admits that plantations across the world were “built by slaves”, and today, it is “a huge task” to run it as a business. “Yes, 50 years ago in Kodagu landlords used to tie up workers to a coconut tree and beat them. Sexual exploitation was there. But not anymore. We live in a different era.”

Somesh agrees that even today, workers are often “pressured to work for landlords who have given them loan”, but he is loath to call it bonded labour. Given rising labour costs and falling coffee prices, says Somesh, he cannot help but extract more work from his workers. “It is all relative, it is about how you look at it,” he says. “I don’t call it bonded labour. I say it’s a bonded employee…. It’s about how you exploit nicely.”

Dhanu Uthaiah quit a corporate job 16 years ago to run his father’s 24 acre coffee and pepper estate. When asked about bondedness, he splits hairs. “Bonded labour is most probably the violation of human rights. That I don’t think is there. Exploitation, yes. These original inhabitants have been exploited since ages.”

He blames both employers and workers. “A problem [among local workers] is alcoholism. If the indigenous tribes are still so backward, it is because of alcoholism.”

Reclaiming rights

As planters continue to justify old habits, there is a slow exodus of full-time estate workers since around 2009. Wages are on the rise today, because workers are cutting loose from bonded labour. Adivasi leader and coffee worker Gappu says that the first step to freedom, is to recognise the employer’s deception.

“I worked from dawn to night for my employer, because he had promised me 10 cents of land after 15 years. He regularly deducted wages towards that,” says Gappu. “One day, I asked him: I’ve worked 25 years, so won’t you give me land now? He said no. Then he asked me, why do you deserve land? Are you a big landlord?”

In 2013, Gappu walked away from the estate he was born and raised in, where even his parents had worked. He took hundreds with him over the years, rescuing them from bonded labour. About 120 Erava and Kuruba families now live in a temporary shelter in Halligattu village.

When asked what made him leave the estate, a Halligattu resident who calls himself ‘Lawyer’ Bhoja thanks to his argumentative personality, describes the process of farming and harvesting a coffee shrub is excruciating detail. “This is what I told my employer - I’m the one who knows how to grow coffee, and I’m the one who has grown your coffee for years. But you earn, and I don’t. You argue with me for a few rupees, you steal from what I need for my family. Where’s the justice, I asked. And then I left.”

After strong protests, the workers in Halligattu have managed to get the government to give 108 families land titles through the Forest Rights Act. They still go to work at coffee estates, but are now able to demand fairer terms. “They used to pay us in small change, and a quarter bottle of alcohol. We have worked for Rs 80-120 a day. But now, we can demand Rs 700-1000 in peak season.”

Gulabi, another estate worker, says she has learnt her legal right to come home after eight hours of work. “The employer asks us to stay longer, but I say no. Because that’s how much we should work.”

Focusing on the next generation

The workers are also obsessively sending their children to school. A good education, to them, is the surest way to escape forced labour. A government school in Ponnampet now has 120 children from different Adivasi communities, compared to the about 70 it had two years ago. Most children are from families that have broken out of bonded labour.

Migrant labourers

Employers in Kodagu have been less resistant to permanent workers quitting, partly because a cheaper, more pliant, migrant labour is now available. In the same years that indigenous workers finally began to bargain, however, migrant workers arrived in the coffee plantations. They come from Assam and Bihar, and live in the same line-houses that bonded labourers once occupied. They say they are paid Rs 220 to 250 per day, which is lower than the state minimum wage, but significantly higher than the pay they received back home.

Dhanu, for instance, has exclusively employed migrant labour in the past four years. “With these migrant workers, the headache is much less,” says Dhanu. “If it’s a permanent worker, I have to give them work for 365 days. As for migrants, once the season is over, you can send them back. All my migrant labour will go back at the end of February and come back in June.” He believes that migrant workers are the only reason coffee estate owners are able to break even today.

Brought to south India by agents and traffickers against advance payments or deceptions, however, migrants are vulnerable in ways different from local workers. Their Hindi or Assamese-speaking children cannot go to the Kannada-language government schools, they are not able to leave the estate unless to go home, and they save nearly all their wages to send home, thus struggling with hunger and malnutrition.

As more of these migrant workers pick coffee in Kodagu today, unseen and unheard, they might well become the new face of bonded labour.

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