#bloodtea at the Expense of the Exploitation of the Tea Garden Workers in Southeast Asia

Man during a demonstration in Darjeeling, India. The sign reads: ‘It is the blood of the poor workers, Darjeeling tea is its name.’ Photograph by Gopashis Biswas G.Son, 2022.
Man during a demonstration in Darjeeling, India. The sign reads: ‘It is the blood of the poor workers, Darjeeling tea is its name.’ Photograph by Gopashis Biswas G.Son, 2022.

Historically, the people of the hilly regions of Southeast Asia have been oppressed not only for being ethnic minorities, but also for being tea garden workers—a perpetual cycle of labour they cannot seem to break free from. The voices of these doubly oppressed communities can barely be heard over the grandeur of evening tea parties held by the lawmakers and policymakers of these respective countries.

While we have fully romanticised the idea of tea garden workers gleefully plucking tea leaves in tea plantations through the images and illustrations repeatedly posted on social media, the real picture is shockingly gloomy and far removed from the upbeat portrayal which these images lead us to believe. As we satisfy our colonial tea-drinking habit and enjoy the first sip of Earl Grey on a delightful Sunday morning, tea garden workers miles away are working tirelessly to fill our cups as the crooked system bars them from enjoying the fruits of their labour. These tea garden workers are severely underpaid and lack basic housing and sanitation facilities, let alone education, healthcare, and recreation. The voices of these doubly oppressed communities can barely be heard over the grandeur of evening tea parties held by the lawmakers and policymakers of these respective countries.

Women protestors in Darjeeling, India, holding up signs displaying the slogan #bloodtea.
Photograph by Gopashis Biswas G.Son, 2022.
Women protestors in Darjeeling, India, holding up signs displaying the slogan #bloodtea. Photograph by Gopashis Biswas G.Son, 2022.

Since the beginning of tea production, the state of the tea garden workers has moved forward a little in comparison to the rapid economic developments in the Southeast Asian countries. The first record of tea gardening in this region dates back to 1836, when it was introduced by the British during the colonial era, primarily to compete with the Chinese tea trade. The tea plantation workers were brutally subjugated by the British rulers at that time. They were given a bare minimum wage with strict working hours and targets. In order to enact their harsh work regime, the British plantation owners utilised a type of contract known as indentured labour, an employment system that bears striking resemblance to slavery. Back then, there were two types of recruiting systems: Arkatti, under which new workers were recruited mostly from the nearby tribal villages; and Sardari, under which new workers were recruited by existing employees. These workers had to stay on the plantation for a fixed period and were not even allowed to see their family members during the length of their contract. With various reforms over time, these contracts have become obsolete but the workers are given an extraordinary target which entraps them to work for a longer period at the plantation.

The colonial era ended, but sadly, its legacy has not. The tea industries in India and Bangladesh are built on the cheap, backbreaking labour of underpaid workers, most of whom are ethnic minorities. There are about 52,000 tea garden workers working across 87 tea estates in Darjeeling, India, while an estimated 100,000 workers toil away in the 167 tea gardens of Bangladesh. A 45-year-old unnamed woman tea-plucker from one of the renowned tea gardens of Darjeeling described her miserable day, which starts at four thirty to five in the morning as she prepares food for herself and her family. She has to be at the tea garden before 7 a.m., and if she is late, she is sent away. The work is non-stop until 4 p.m., sometimes even 5 p.m. Until the pickup van arrives to take them home from the garden or the supervisor calls it a day, they have to carry on plucking. The wage is not based solely on time; they are also fixed with a target, and if they fail to pluck the amount of tea leaves indicated on the target their wages are cut off. For extra leaves that the workers pluck, they receive INR 2–3 per kilogram. The daily wage, which was only INR 176 in 2021, increased by only INR 26 to INR 202 (USD 2.44) per day in 2022 to accommodate for inflation. But what can you really do with INR 202 when a kilogram of rice costs INR 40–60? Hence, the labour alliance party, Hamro Hill Terai Dooars Chiyabari Sramik Sangh, peacefully demonstrated against what they are calling a ‘slave wage.’

A protester during the protest in Darjeeling, India. The full poster reads: ‘Take a stand with tea garden workers.
Fair Wages, Not Slave Wages. #bloodtea (H.H.T.D.C.S.S.)’. Hamro Hill Terai Dooars Chiyabari Shramik Sangh
(H.H.T.D.C.S.S.) is the tea garden labour union in the north-east of India.
Photograph by Gopashis Biswas G.Son, 2022.
A protester during the protest in Darjeeling, India. The full poster reads: ‘Take a stand with tea garden workers. Fair Wages, Not Slave Wages. #bloodtea (H.H.T.D.C.S.S.)’. Hamro Hill Terai Dooars Chiyabari Shramik Sangh (H.H.T.D.C.S.S.) is the tea garden labour union in the north-east of India. Photograph by Gopashis Biswas G.Son, 2022.

The picture is almost the same in Bangladesh as well. A worker has to pluck a minimum of 22 kilograms of tea leaves to escape a forced wage cut from the already meager daily salary of BDT 170 (USD 1.59). Even this BDT 170 is a newly increased rate from the previous wage of BDT 120 (USD 1.19), which the workers had to plea, strike, and march in processions for—their only means of catching the attention of the government. While they pleaded for a daily wage of BDT 300 (USD 2.81), the labour board and the tea estate owners did not go any higher than BDT 170. In an unstable market where a kilogram of rice costs BDT 70–100, what options does one have with a daily wage of BDT 170? The family of these workers can hardly taste fish or meat in a year.

The exploitative attitudes of the tea garden authorities and the failure of the government to negotiate and act accordingly are responsible for the outrageous meager wages and appalling living conditions of these oppressed workers. This sidelined community is easily ignored by the centre, even though they protest and hold peaceful processions to fight for their rights. A common scenario in a tea garden worker’s family is that their children go to school in their early years but as they grow up, their parents cannot support the cost of education. This results in a vicious, perpetual cycle of oppression as these children, with no other option, follow in the footsteps of their parents and start working in the tea estates. Achieving freedom of choice for this doubly-oppressed community may seem like boiling the ocean, but with a properly functioning democratic system, the fight against institutionalised exploitation within the crippled system is not impossible.

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ArtIQulate is a publication associated with the Adenauer Fellowship, a scholarship programme by the Media Programme Asia, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Ltd.
About the author

Gopashis Biswas G.Son

Gopashis Biswas G.Son is a visual storyteller based in Bangladesh. His works have been published in periodicals and showcased in over 10 countries around the globe, receiving several prestigious national and international awards. Besides his visual journey, G.Son teaches and examines media and literature at a public university. His present works focus on the symbiosis of new media and its data and how these elements become socioculturally invested with ideals of precision, reliability, objectivity and ‘truth’ in the politico-commercial nexus.

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