Women In The Tea Industry: How Gender Roles, Unequal Pay, And Feudal Structures Disadvantage Female Labourers

Editor’s Note: FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth for July 2022 is Gender and Environment. We invite submissions on the many layers of this theme throughout the month. If you’d like to contribute, kindly refer to our submission guidelines and email your articles to sukanya@feminisminindia.com


India, the world’s second-largest tea producer, exporter, and consumer, celebrates 21st May as International Tea Day. The state of Assam generates approximately 57 percent of India’s tea. The industry is still in the grip of its colonial legacy. It emerged from a pattern where capital and management were brought from imperialist countries and labour and land from colonies. By 1971, tea plantations became the topmost women-employed non-agricultural field of occupation, employing 70 percent women. Despite this, no state government has included the tea industry in its schedule of employment. 

Due to the fall in auction prices, the tea industry is said to be in a crisis since the early 1990s. In the face of the challenges of globalisation, the industry is moving towards increasing the casualisation of the labour force. The relations between tea garden employers and workers have further deteriorated as many labour communities are excluded from the Schedule Tribes of Assam, even though they are tribes, leading to restlessness.

The industry is also plagued by migration issues and subordination of women within a state that has withdrawn its welfare policies. The tea sector is thus, one that harbours the intersectionality of gender, caste, class, and workplace inequalities within industrial relations.

Women, in general, have a relatively lower presence in occupational categories (cultivators, agricultural workers, etc.), and 80 percent of workers employed in the tea industry are women tea pluckers. More than 90 percent of the tea workers are individuals from scheduled tribes and scheduled castes.

The most hazardous work is done by field workers (women), which involves carrying heavy loads on uneven terrain, amidst harsh weather, and in areas with a high possibility of infection through water-borne diseases. This also shows how women were given the crucial, labour-intensive task of plucking tea leaves based on their ‘nimble fingers‘. Since families migrated to work on plantations and the work itself is gender-specific, the number of women employed in the field was always high. Research has also shown that the prevalence of hypertension is high in the native population of Assam, especially among tea workers, progressing with age. 

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The Assam tea industry represents an example of a supply chain with high risks of human rights violations. There is a need to analyse unequal gender norms, adhere to the United Nations Women’s Empowerment Principles, prioritise gender-equal employment practices, develop effective policies with a gender lens, ensure better representation of women in all positions, provide higher wages, and implement the POSH Act, 2013 at the workplace

The industry has witnessed the capitalisation of production due to which male workers took up higher status jobs. Further, women are given traditional work, gender marked for them. The concept of the skill itself is socially defined, and the male figures have a vested interest in maintaining superiority over women. As a result, even if a particular task requires the same skill level, the pay for women is lower than that of men. Women’s lower wage is justified by saying that they are vulnerable and would fatigue under hard work.  

Socialist feminists have for long argued how women are exploited by the capitalist system both in their homes and workplaces. Even in terms of family recruitment policies, there is a sense of paternalistic control over Adivasi women workers. Due to years of conditioning, to be treated with no respect has almost become the norm.

Within this context, women have no scope to be in a supervisor position. Patriarchy is pervasive under the patron system, where the planter-manager-sahib symbolises the father figure. Naturally, women workers have been perceived as submissive. Their wages are handed over to the men in their families by the management. 

Also read: Brick Kiln Labourers: Women Are Underpaid And Lack Decisive Power Or Status

Due to the sex segregation of labour, women find it challenging to participate in higher-paying jobs that are reserved for men, and their work remains invisible. The gendered division of labour is also highly prevalent, with significantly lower participation of women in trade union activities.

Trade unions, in general, haven’t been able to help with the violation of statutory rights in the tea manufacturing industry. They have been unsuccessful in addressing issues like availing leaves (partially paid), urging managers and companies to improve housing standards, provision of clean water, medical facilities, toilet facilities, etc.

Karl Marx believed that trade unions are a weapon through which the working class can raise their rights and fight for equity. However, the politics of unionism is gendered. They also fail to address the severe harassment women face and reflect the historical process of keeping women out of decision-making bodies. 

For a beverage consumed by over 80 per cent of the Indian households, cutting across all socio-economic differences, the tea workers in general and women tea pluckers in particular, are paid disturbingly low wages. Generations of workers have been kept in systemic poverty as a result of this. Women are doubly marginalised as isolated in this process

Most women workers are educationally disadvantaged, and left with minimal state efforts to access education. Through the Assam Tea Welfare Board, the government of Assam conducted some training programmes for the women workers like the Mezenga Female Labour Welfare Training programme. But even these initiatives lack focus on literacy and building awareness related to workers’ rights among women. The socio-economic reasons for low literacy among women are economic backwardness, negligence of girls’ education, non-availability of schools, early marriages, and lack of adequate policy measures.

Occupational mobility depends upon the willingness to change the occupation, and the capacity to do so is deficient due to feudal work structure, lack of education and skills, and the perceived otherness of workers. At the same time, strong social bonding and kinship on account of a shared history where migrant labourers were brought in large numbers from the same localities, might impact moving out. 

A 2008 study by Action Aid showed how plantation closure, wage cuts, dismal living conditions, lack of job security, lack of basic welfare measures, and declining health, adversely impact workers. Another study on social determinants of the health of women tea plantation workers in India showed that women’s opinions did not matter at the community level. Furthermore, women fear speaking out or demanding better conditions as they are workers, dispensible at the will of their superiors. They work the double shift of labouring at home and on the plantation. This, along with harsh working conditions, is also the cause for much psychosocial stress.

There is a need to switch to democratic ways of maintaining labour relations, ensuring strict implementation and revision of minimum wage, providing vocational training, supporting women at the workplace through community forums, and establishing a safe and protective working environment. 

The Assam tea industry represents an example of a supply chain with high risks of human rights violations. There is a need to analyse unequal gender norms, adhere to the United Nations Women’s Empowerment Principles, prioritise gender-equal employment practices, develop effective policies with a gender lens, ensure better representation of women in all positions, provide higher wages, and implement the POSH Act, 2013 at the workplace.

For a beverage consumed by over 80 percent of the Indian households, cutting across all socio-economic differences, the tea workers in general and women tea pluckers in particular, are paid disturbingly low wages. Generations of workers have been kept in systemic poverty as a result of this. Women are doubly marginalised and isolated in this process. We must investigate this issue and address the intersectional jeopardies women face in this area of employment to ensure equity and safe working conditions.

Also read: Love, Caste And Gender: How Women Become Unpaid Labourers


Featured Image Source: The Sentinel Assam

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