Popular culture has romanticised the idea of the women workers in the tea plantations, as the camera lens zooms across the slopes dotted with the tea bushes, while women are busy plucking tea leaves with their nimble fingers. The tea garden workers in Darjeeling seem to be smiling gleefully, satiated. The tea plantations become a site for the tourists, posing in an upgraded attire of the tea workers for the photos, which will possibly make way through the social media handles. This romanticising of the labourer and glossing over the dreary lives of the plantation workers has been hidden and unspoken in the mainstream media.
While we sip on our Darjeeling teas and enjoy the muscatel flavour with our cookies and pastries, somewhere, maybe a thousand kilometres away women work laboriously to bring this very tea to our tables, while she is prohibited from enjoying herself due to the social and political structures she posits herself in. These women of tea plantations are underpaid and lack proper housing while facing the onslaught that comes with the burden of being a woman in an underprivileged position. She is continually subjected to the male middlemen and the politics of the state that denies her these rights.
India is one of the second largest producer of tea after China and despite competition, the Darjeeling and Assam Tea are renowned all over the world. The tea plantation is the largest sector in the formal private sector industry, yet the wages of these workers are the lowest in this sector. They live under despicable conditions with meager perks being bestowed by the companies that run the plantations.
The women tea garden worker is seen as marketable to the popular and the mainstream audience that views those exotic looks on the packaging of the tea. Selling tea, which is acceptable yet only confined to the palate and not for the consumption of the state or the owners of the tea plantation, does not maintain a conducive environment for the workers. The labour of women in these tea gardens has been obscured, their voices muffled as there is an absence of discourses in the mainstream on the issues that women in the tea gardens face.
Women and Tea Plantations
The whole activity of plucking tea leaves is generally associated with women due to the essentialist stereotype of women being delicate and hence efficient only as pluckers. This results in these tea workers inability to learn other skills and which restricts their job opportunities. And due to such limited skilling, women plantation workers are seen as “inferior in terms of social status due to their wage work and lack of control over their leisure activities.”
There is also an effort, hence, made by the the smallholder women tea farmers to distinguish themselves from these labourers due to the social class connotation that comes with the tea plantation workers. It hence becomes a notion of pride for the former to proudly declare that they are not part of the daily wage workers. It is also crucial to understand how this gendered distinction has been embedded in the colonial history of the hill station of Darjeeling that has seen a gendered recruitment of labourers over the years. Scholars seem to note that there has also been a ‘sexualised and also a racial trope that has been attached to these labourers which is specific to tribal groups in east-central India.’
In Darjeeling it becomes quite an amalgamation of all these stereotypes and prejudices. We must view the tea garden workers against the racialized and sexualised history of the plantation workers while we also try to locate them in the ‘identity politics of specific tea producing communities.’ The women tea plantation workers of Darjeeling are seen as sexually immoral and alcoholic.
One must remember that this distinction cannot ignore how this is situated within the patriarchal culture of the Nepali Hindu family, which Sen mentions, views the withdrawal of women from the labour force as an aspect of upward mobility. This, too is highly problematic as issues that women face in tea gardens get divided due to their conscious detachment with the other due to deeply embedded societal reasons.
The Current Scenario
Last year in October, the West Bengal government and the Tea Planters’ Association agreed to a 20% increase in the bonus, after workers from 87 tea gardens across Darjeeling went on a 12 hour strike demanding for an increment. The condition of the tea plantation workers is bleak, the minimum wage is a measly ₹176. The ‘fringe benefits’ like clothing, housing, medical facilities are still not considered while determining these minimum wages. The tea garden workers are exploited by the plantation owners and companies. They work long work hours, are underpaid, lack a retirement policy and a comprehensive health system.
A fact finding mission report, states that under the Indian law, tea workers are entitled to maternity leave with pay or equal social benefits but they fall short of Article 4 of the ILO Maternity Protection Convention (2000), which bestows women maternity leave of not less than 14 weeks. The temporary workers, however are at a back-foot as they do not receive paid maternity leave which is a clear violation of the national and the international laws.
The fight by women in tea plantations is an everyday battle, as they leave their homes for work. The challenges are both inside the plantation as workers and outside as smallholder women tea farmers. The battle and struggles continue both in the private sphere and the dichotomous public sphere at their workplace to get their basic rights and while also struggling at the national level to increase their minimum wages.
The patriarchal structures are ubiquitous and seem to prevail in not only the social but economic sphere, when women tea farmers challenge the monopoly of the middleman by going to the market directly. Indeed, our cup of tea comes with a burden of those several workers who do not get to taste the fruit of their own labour.
“The chronic violations of human rights in tea plantations require a structural change within India that can only be achieved with the central involvement of the tea workers themselves and those who support their struggles on the basis of human rights in holding the State accountable to its human rights obligations.”
- Darjeeling Reconsidered by Oxford University Press
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