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Tetley/Tata Responds to IUF Support for Hungry Tea Workers in India ... with Public Relations

Posted to the IUF website 23-Nov-2009

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On November 12, the IUF wrote the CEO of UK-based Tetley Group to inform him that on the Nowera Nuddy Tea Estate in West Bengal "1,000 tea workers and their families in India are being starved into submission by the company which owns Tetley Tea." The IUF called on him to urgently intervene with the estate management to meet the demands of the workers' Action Committee, which include immediately lifting the lockout and reopening the plantation.

The lockout continues, the estate remains closed and the workers have received wages and rations for the equivalent of only two days since early August. The workers remain hostages of enforced hunger.

On November 16, the IUF received a fax dated November 13 from Tetely CEO Peter Unsworth informing us that the company was aware of "the complex and sensitive situation that is reported as having taken place" at Nowera Nuddy, assuring that the company is "keen to ensure" that a resolution is achieved, and simply urged us to contact Vaishanavi Communications - a public relations firm in India which handles multiple accounts for Tata Group companies - for more information.

On November 19, the local government administration began distributing to Nowera Nuddy workers coupons for emergency rations (known as GR for "general rations" in India) which are normally reserved only for those officially designated as below the poverty line or victims of natural disasters - clear recognition that the situation of the workers and their families is exactly as the IUF has described it.

On November 18 and 19, the IUF received several phone calls from India, from a person claiming to represent Amalgamated Plantations (the Tata Tea majority-owned company which owns and operates Nowera Nuddy plantation). The caller, whose name and telephone number indicate that she works for Tata's public relations firm Vaishnavi Corporate Communications, explained that the IUF was misinformed about the situation, that an "illegal group of tribals" had placed the estate's medical doctor in a life-threatening situation, and that the company had no choice but to "temporarily" close the plantation. The following day, the IUF did in fact receive an e-mail from a Mahasweta Sen, delivered via a Gmail address on behalf of Amalgamated Plantation Pvt Ltd, together with a copy of the doctor's version of events, requesting us to remove the article from our website (view email as PDF here). Mahasweta Sen is listed as a Director and Branch Head of Vaishnavi Corporate Communications on the website linkedin.com.

This is our response:

The IUF is responding to the prolonged and continuing denial of wages and rations to a thousand workers and their dependants, not to a situation which is "reported as having taken place."

About the letter's claim that "All Tata Companies are governed by the Tata Code of Conduct", and "Decades before socially responsible corporate activity became the byword in industry circles, Tata companies were following the letter and spirit of the rules that define ethical business behaviour", we have little to say, except that Amalgamated Plantations, in which, as the letter says, Tata is the majority shareholder (and described as such by the IUF) cannot justify this situation with reference to a Tata Code of Conduct or Tata's reputation. Tata and its companies have a responsibility to ensure that starvation is not used as a weapon against those who pick their tea.

The letter claims that "The employee who found himself at the centre of a rapidly developing and potentially life-threatening situation was Dr.R.K.Ratan Singh, a Medical Officer for the Nowera Nuddy Estate that provides free medical care to all employees, dependents and local residents. He has lodged a FIR (a formal complaint) with the local police for his sustained physical assault by members of Akhil Bhartiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad (ABAVP).

The Nowera Nuddy Estate cannot claim credit for providing medical care: it is a requirement under Indian law, and medical services are ostensibly taken into account in determining workers' wages.

On August 9, hundreds of angry workers, mostly women, gathered outside the medical facility to protest the abusive treatment of a 22 year-old tea garden worker who was denied maternity leave and forced to continue work as a tea plucker despite being nearly 8 months pregnant. On August 9, Mrs. Arti Oraon collapsed in the field and was brought to the hospital, in a trailer drawn by a tractor, after the medical officer refused to make an ambulance available (he had proposed she be brought by bicycle). The workers confronted the doctor and an altercation ensued. Multiple eyewitness accounts collected by the IUF describe the understandably tense and angry mood, the doctor's attempts to justify abusive practices, workers slapping the doctor, and his flight, in the course of which he cut himself. The workers involved in this protest were all employees of the estate and their family members expressing deep frustration at yet another abusive incident. According to the workers, the doctor had a history of refusing to grant sick leave in general and refusal to grant women workers in advanced stages of pregnancy their legal entitlement to maternity leave and benefits. Eyewitness interviews do not support the allegation that the doctor was robbed - in fact this is a common accusation leveled against workers by Indian employers. Nor does any evidence support the doctor's contention that he was assaulted with bricks, umbrellas etc. and bled profusely for 12 hours while being denied medical treatment. If this were so, he would surely have required extensive treatment, which his letter does not mention.

The doctor, however, does describe his efforts to explain to "the mob regarding the norms of maternity benefits (which is 6 weeks before and 6 weeks after delivery)." According to Indian law, no pregnant woman can be required to perform "any work which is of an arduous nature or which involves long hours of standing, or which in any way is likely to interfere with her pregnancy or the normal development of the foetus, or is likely to cause her miscarriage or otherwise to adversely affect her health", from a period "one months immediately preceding the period of six weeks, before the date of her expected delivery" (Article 4, Maternity Benefits Act 1961).

Tea plucking involves long hours of standing and carrying of heavy loads. The issue was never the payment of benefits, but that by law, Arti Oraon should never, at this stage of her pregnancy, have been working as a tea plucker. Arti Oraon's ultrasound scan result shows her to have been 31 weeks and 5 days pregnant the day she was sent to the fields and collapsed. Given the chronically low levels of nutritional intake amongst tea workers, this result may actually underestimate the development of her pregnancy.

According to Arti, "When I went to the doctor to get maternity leave, I was refused the maternity leave. The doctor said you will have to work for this week and next week."

Rejecting requests for sick leave and maternity leave was common on the estate - hence the accumulated resentment against the doctor. Another woman worker from the estate told the IUF: "Our sister, Arti Oraon has been asking for maternity leave since she was seven and a half months pregnant. The doctor refused to grant her leave, saying that the time had not yet come to give her the leave. When a pregnant woman worker goes to ask for leave, she is not granted leave. If any one said anything, the doctor used to abuse them verbally. And he would not give leave and send the woman to work. If the woman does not go to work she will be marked absent and not given wages. If we do not work, what will we eat? So we have to go to work."

The PR firm and the estate doctor tirelessly repeat that dissatisfaction on the estate was the result of outside agitators in the form of the Akhil Bhartiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad (ABAVP), implying that it cannot possibly stem from a pattern of abuse and exploitation.

The labour regime on India's tea plantations is a complex matrix of oppression in which class, caste and ethnicity are closely intermingled. In the northern plains of West Bengal, many estate workers are Adivasis (from the Scheduled Tribes recognized under the Indian constitution as needing affirmative action measures) with a large number of workers of Nepali origin as well. A multitude of civil and human rights organizations have sprung up in recent years in response to decades of abusive treatment. The ABAVP, a registered society since the late 1960s, is one such group and many poor people, including tea workers in the region support its goals. The mobilization at Nowera Nuddy is being conducted by estate workers. A clear majority of workers signed a petition in September affirming their rights and demanding the reopening of the estate. Management has in fact acknowledged, although rejected, the September petition of "about 600 workers" in a communication to the District Magistrate dated November 9. The Action Committee which formed in early November and sought IUF solidarity draws its strength and support from estate workers without reference to ethnicity or political or other allegiance.

The IUF is a pluralist organization independent of all political parties or groups. It is the demands of the Action Committee that the IUF is supporting in this struggle for elementary justice. The Ethical Tea Partnership's Standard on Discrimination (7.1 Equal Treatment) proscribes "discrimination in hiring, compensation, access to training, promotion, termination or retirement based on race, caste, national origin, religion, age, disability, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, union membership or political affiliation."

Finally and most importantly, the extended lockout of the estate workers is not due to the alleged potential for violence being stirred up by NGOs or "illegal organizations". Following the first lockout which began on August 11, the estate was reopened on August 28. It was business as usual, but for the fact that workers were told that for the estate to stay open they would have to accept the results of an internal, company-controlled disciplinary procedure in connection with the August 9 protest. In a September 10 meeting, management told the workers that suspension letters had been issued against 8 workers, who were victimized for their activism in support of workers' rights, and that maintaining production and the payment of wages depended on compliance with that decision. The workers requested six days to respond to this ultimatum of compliance or collective punishment.

With no warning or indication, on September 14 - day four of the six-day period for the workers to respond, and the day they were to have received their annual festival bonus equivalent to two months' wages - the management again closed the estate, and the workers have been without wages or rations ever since.

On October 16 worker representatives wrote to the management, following a meeting between management and worker representatives before the District Magistrate on October 8, assuring a peaceful work environment and agreeing to an impartial domestic inquiry but noting that attempts to starve workers were intolerable. The letter was dismissed as it was considered insufficiently deferential to a management for whom negotiations are seen as a challenge to their absolute authority.

On October 23 worker representatives again wrote the management, following a meeting between the management and worker representatives at the Block Development Office (local administration office) on 15 October, assuring a peaceful working environment, noting their previous agreement to an investigation and calling on management to treat workers with dignity. The letter was rejected the very same day.

The entire sequence of events shows that the real issue for the company in this extended show of force is their determination to compel the workers through hunger to surrender their right to protest.

Tetley and Tata should move beyond public relations and get to the issues at the heart of this conflict. Nothing in their communication to date with the IUF even alludes to the effective denial of food for a group of workers and their families for an extended period soon approaching 4 months. Collective punishment is unacceptable under any conditions. If Tata were a state, it would clearly be in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, whose Article 33 states that no protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed.

With respect to the "final point of information" in the e-mail the IUF received from the PR firm, namely "all tea grown at the Nowera Nuddy Tea Estate is sold for use in Tata Tea brands. Contrary to inaccurate reporting none of this tea is used for the Tetley brand", we never made the claim. Tetley CEO Peter Unsworth, who apparently read the IUF article more carefully than his parent company's PR firm, states in his response to the IUF that "the ethical treatment of all employees of APPL is obviously an issue of significant concern" - that should be sufficient to remove this red herring. We stated that tea from Amalgamated Plantations goes into Tetley tea bags, and we consider that Tata and Tetley are responsible for what happens on plantations owned by companies which they own, either wholly or in part, and source from. Isn't that what most consumers would understand by ethical tea?