'Modern-day bonded labour': The inhuman work conditions of TN tea estate workers

Though the law protects the employees, they say that employers push them to work for long hours, with bare minimum facilities provided to them.
Two women working in tea estate of Nilgiris district
Two women working in tea estate of Nilgiris district
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When one imagines the Western Ghats, picturesque mountains and many women meticulously plucking leaves from lush tea gardens come to mind. However, behind the alluring greenery of the tea estates are harsh work schedules and poor living conditions. Workers at these tea estates say that they are forced to work for more than eight hours a day with meagre pay. “Tea estates are a form of modern-day bonded labour, for which there is no end,” say tea workers in the region.

A recent landslide in Kerala has thrown light on the living condition of tea estate workers in the state. A massive landslide trapped over 70 people in Pettimudi of Munnar in Idukki district. As of August 11, the death toll in the Munnar landslide stands at 52. The workers, most of whom were said to be from Tamil Nadu, were living in ‘layams’ — cramped single-room quarters, all stuck to each other, thereby causing severe damage. 

The living condition is no different for workers in the Western Ghats region in adjoining Tamil Nadu. The tea estate labourers say that they work for long hours, toiling under rain and sun, to earn a meagre living. The labourers who are mainly women also complain of many health issues as they have to carry huge loads of tea leaves in a basket on their back, by tying it to their stomachs. 

Hard labour with poor pay

54-year-old Kaliyammal* has been working in the tea estate for more than three decades and a few years ago, she decided to quit and marry her daughters with the money that she had saved. However, Kaliyammal said she could not leave the tea estates for long, and had to return.

At 8 am, Kaliyammal enters the estate and by the end of eight hours, her target fixed by the employer is to collect 150 kgs of tea leaves; a daunting task, but she says that she continues to work because this is the only job to give her ‘kanji’ (porridge) in the hilly terrain.

"It is difficult. We get only one hour in between for lunch and all the other time, we should stand while carrying more than 40 kg of tea leaves tied around our stomachs. The work is stressful and the pay is also low," she said. 

Thirty years ago, Kaliyammal was receiving Rs 15 as salary and now her wage has been increased to Rs 330 per day. However, her life has not changed. "After I quit my job, I had to join back as a temporary employee. So that means I do not have access to any estate houses or medical facilities. All the money goes towards rent and nothing is left in the hand," she said. 

In the monsoon, life gets even more difficult. "Leeches fall on our heads and start sucking our blood but we are still not allowed to take a break or given a leave. Even if an employee faints, they need to get back to work after regaining consciousness. They will not even be lenient for a few minutes," she added.  

A few years back, Kaliyammal suffered a heart attack due to her stressful living condition and underwent an open heart surgery. The estate did not bear the expense, she said. "My health condition does not give me an exception. If I am unable to meet the target, I will be fired immediately. There are so many youngsters who joined the job and were fired. So despite my health condition and the high target for my age, I am continuing to work to feed me and my husband," she said.

Kaliyammal is not the only woman to face health issues because of this work. "Many women have removed their uterus as it weakens. The uterus will sag due to working for long hours and we will be left with no option but to remove them. We also get spondylitis and arthritis. If we take leave to get treatment for an illness, it will be added as a loss of pay to our account. So, we are simply trapped," she said.

Appalling living conditions

The living condition of the workers is not any better. The monsoon this year has already played havoc in the lives of the tea estate workers in Gudalar. 

“Even last week, a small portion of a house in the government owned TANTEA estate collapsed, injuring a boy. The family has been given shelter in a nearby school. The living condition is poor in the tea estates and minor mishaps continue to happen in Gudalur taluk,” said Ramakumar*, a tea estate labourer.

The workers say that the mishaps continue but the government only provides them temporary compensation and most of them are forced to continue their lives in the same estates.

Stating that the Nilgiris has major population of Dalit and Sri Lankan Tamil workers, Bathri said, “Most of the tea plantation workers reside within the estates. However, the homes provided to them are usually in dilapidated condition without renovation for more than a decade. The homes also do not have toilets. The workers also simultaneously face man-animal conflict and monsoon just adds to the woes as trees get uprooted along with landslides. The uprooted trees even fall on homes.”

The homes allotted by tea estate owners are mostly near forest areas or places surrounded by water, making life difficult for the occupants. 

Dhavamudhalvan, a documentary filmmaker in Kotagiri said, “The homes are constructed in 250 sq ft, which will be enough for a couple and their children. However, homes of three children find it very difficult to continue their living. Also, the households do not have toilets and when they leave the hamlet at night they are forced to face animals and reptiles.”

Most of the homes are just covered with asbestos sheets, making the homes vulnerable during monsoon, he said. “The asbestos sheet cannot withhold long and rainy days and the water will just start entering the homes from the roofs. Even during non-rainy days, reptiles like centipedes and sometimes snakes, can enter the houses. Even for renovating the houses, the employees should get the permission of the factory owners,” said Dhavamudhalvan, who lives in an estate quarters with his wife, who is a tea worker.

No retirement plan

Despite all this, the families of tea workers dread what awaits them after retirement, since their only home will also go away. 

“The tea estate workers will be thrown to the street overnight, after retirement. Immediately after retiring, the workers should vacate the homes and they may not be able to afford to rent a home with the little savings that they have. Even post-retirement, they are denied a decent house,” said Dhavamudhalvan.

Laws being violated?

According to the Plantation Labour Act, 1951, every employer should provide necessary accommodation for workers and families. The plantation employer should provide a creche facility and ensure sanitary conditions. The Act also mentions that the employer must provide umbrellas, blankets, rain coats and other amenities for protection of workers from rain or cold. However, the facilities are only for show, said tea estate workers.

Bathri R, state president of Nilgiris Estate Worker Union said, “The workers should be given coats, boots and warm clothes during monsoon but the employers just use monsoon to make workers produce more yield. Tea grows well during monsoon, so they burden the workers to produce more yield within eight hours. As employees should be paid more for overtime duty, the employees simply set additional targets within their work hours during monsoon.”

“One can see the workers get drenched in the rain and yet continue to pluck the leaves, even as the temperature drops sharply. There will be no bags given to collect tea leaves, so they will tie a sack around their stomach and will pluck for long hours resulting in uterus cancer in the long run. The workers also do not have access to clean drinking water, which puts their lives at stake,” said Bathri.

*Names changed

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