Oxfam blames brands for inequality to Assam tea workers

Tea loading in a garden in Assam. (Photo credit: Oxfam India)

Oxfam India on Thursday blamed the brands and supermarkets as one of the factors contributing to inequality meted out to tea garden workers in Assam that add 52% of the country's total tea production.

The rights group claimed that survey conducted in 2018 in at least 50 tea estates in Assam by Tata Institute of Social Sciences revealed that half of the workers interviewed possessed Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards and continued to be in "appalling living condition" even as the tea produced by them are sold by brands in supermarkets. 

"Assam tea is particularly valued by consumers for its rich, robust and aromatic flavour. Like champagne, Assam tea is named for the region where it is grown. Often, supermarkets sell it at premium prices, either as pure Assam tea or as part of popular blends such as ‘English Breakfast’ tea. But the research showed the shocking scale and depth of human suffering of the women and men who produces our tea," Oxfam India said in its report, Addressing the Human Cost of Assam Tea. 

With 850 big gardens and thousands of small ones, Assam is the world's fourth-largest tea growing region. But industry leaders recently claimed that they were in severe crisis due to increase in production and stagnant price in the markets. They said 90% of the tea was sold at Rs. 200 per kg whereas the cost of production also touched Rs. 200.

Oxfam report claimed that 95% of the price a kilogram of Assam tea fetches in the market are taken by tea brands and supermarkets while less than 5% remains with tea estates to pay their workers. "These inequalities in how the share of the end consumer price of tea is distributed contribute to poverty and suffering for the women and men in Assam tea estates, while driving a sustainability crisis for the wider tea industry in parts of India," it said. 

The report said new research found that the workers who bring the prized brew struggle to earn enough to cover their basic living costs, to find drinking water that will not give them typhoid or cholera, to reach a medical facility in time to treat illnesses, or to find shelter from the monsoon rains under the dilapidated roofs of their cramped houses. Women tea workers undertake up to 13 hours of physical labour per day. They do the labour-intensive, low-paid task of plucking tea, while men get the better paid, more respected factory jobs.

Workers at present are paid daily wage between Rs. 137 to Rs. 167, apart from the ration and other benefits. The same is less for women.

"The root cause of exploitation in food supply chains is a marked and widening inequality of power. At the top, big supermarkets and other corporate giants dominate food markets, allowing them to squeeze ever more value from supply chains that span the globe, while at the bottom, the bargaining power of small-scale farmers and workers such as those in Assam has been steadily eroded," the report claimed.

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