“Markets closed, no work or money at home”: How the COVID-19 lockdown is affecting tea garden workers in West Bengal
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc across the globe in the past three months, causing over one lakh deaths worldwide so far, with over 19 lakh people being tested positive. In India, the number of affected cases is growing rapidly with over eleven thousand cases and three hundred fatalities. In response to this, on 23 March, at 8 pm the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown for 21 days, leaving only four hours in the night to prepare for the same.
Daily wage labourers and migrant workers—themajority of whom belong to socially marginalized communities—and queer and trans* persons did not feature in Modi’s imagination while announcing the lockdown. While protecting the life and health of citizens who could afford the lockdown, the BJP-led government failed to make any preparations to uphold the right to life of its vulnerable and economically poor citizens.
The abruptness of the lockdown has pushed countless citizens to the margins. News and social media are flooded with the plight of working class citizens, especially migrant workers struggling to make ends meet. During this time, as a section of the Indian populace grapples with staying at home 24/7 and has the option to work from home; another section of the country is spending days without proper food, water and sanitation walking miles trying to reach the safety of their homes.
For the tea garden workers in Bengal and Assam—who are majorly Adivasis—the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown has unleashed an unprecedented threat to their life. Due to the abysmally low wages they’re paid, the tea garden workers in the two states do not have enough savings for basic sustenance during the lockdown period. Further to amplify their misery, the tea garden owners are not paying any wages during the lockdown period even though the West Bengal state government has issued an order with “memo. no. 63-CS/2020” asking them to pay workers their rightful wages.
About 50 percent of West Bengal’s tea garden workforce comprises casual or temporary workers. Accordingly, the wages accrued during the lockdown period, if they are paid, will be only for the permanent workers. “The managers here have not paid wages to workers since 24 March. We are uncertain whether we will get our wages due during the lockdown period,” said Dipen Oraon of Chalouni tea garden, owned by the Godricke Company. He added “On 7 April, the management gave an advance payment of Rs 500 to permanent workers only, while casual workers were not paid anything. Now there is uncertainty whether anyone will receive the balance wages due during this lockdown period or not.”The Godricke Company owns 17 tea gardens in West Bengal and 11 tea gardens in Assam.
The situation is no different in other tea gardens in West Bengal, where estate owners have made workers’ lives even more miserable. “From our union we are demanding that the wages during the lockdown period should be paid in full to all the workers but the managers are saying that they have not received any written notice from the government regarding this,” Bijay Tirkey of Raidak tea garden told me. “Till now, in most of the tea gardens in West Bengal, including Raidak tea garden, the owners and managers have not paid any wages to the workers.”
Dayanand Oraon of Kumlai tea garden informed me, “In Kumlai we (workers) have not received our wages since 9 March, which was supposed to be paid on 28 March. Forget the lockdown, managers here have not paid us wages for the days we worked beforehand, this has further increased our difficulty.” He added that, “Now with the lockdown, we are not even sure whether we will get it or not. The managers and owners in most tea gardens are not following the state government’s order dated 29 March to pay the wages during the lockdown period.”
‘The market is closed; there is no work and no money at home. The manager said he won’t be paying any wages to bigha—temporary workers—, what are we supposed to do now,” said a woman tea garden worker, who wished to remain anonymous. “I had 1000 rupees in my bank account, now that is also over. Since last week we are only eating rice provided by the government. I do not know how we will survive if this lockdown continues.” The lack of support and planning has further increased the vulnerability of workers.
In closed tea gardens in West Bengal and Assam, trade unions used to carry out plucking and maintenance work, providing temporary livelihood till the gardens reopened. Now that work has stopped, the trade unions need support from the central and state government to pay wages to the workers during this indefinite lockdown period.
Manisha Mahali of Nagaisuree tea garden said, “In other tea gardens there is talk that permanent workers would get their wages. There is some hope, but here we do not even have that hope as Nagaigsuree tea garden is closed for many years now; due to which many people have also migrated to different parts of the country for work.” She added, “Now because of the lockdown they are all stuck there without work and are somehow managing, but they are not able to financially support their families here in the tea garden.”
Thecentral government has been providing Rs 700 to each household to buy LPG cylinders. “The cost of a gas cylinder is Rs 800, from where will we get the balance amount to buy gas?” Mahali asked. “If we have extra money, should we add it and buy cooking gas or buy vegetables to cook?” She told me that the ration provided by the government’s PDS system is irregular and consists only of wheat flour and rice—that too of bad quality. “Families here are surviving on just bad quality rice and roti with no vegetables or any other food. Many families do not even have that, we from Prayatn—a group of Adivasi youth in the tea gardens of Dooars—is trying our best to support those families with our collective efforts and limited resources,” she added.
The lockdown, although necessary has proven to be an unprecedented challenge for the tea industry. If work starts again, there is a high likelihood of the Coronavirus spreading at an alarming rate as 7 people in Kalimpong and 4 in Jalpaiguri have already tested positive. And if work is not resumed soon, then many tea estates will be forced to close as the period from March to July is peak harvest season. To maintain the productivity of the tea industry and ensure that they are not pushed to close, chief minister Mamta Banerjee has allowed the tea gardens to operate with 15 % of the workforce.
Historically, tea garden workers in West Bengal and Assam have been living in vulnerable conditions that include exploitative wages, inadequate water and sanitation facilities and poor investment in education and healthcare. These have been further aggravated by the current pandemic and lockdown. The central and state governments’ lack of political will to uphold the fundamental right to life of the tea garden workers is appalling and shameful. And the owners of the tea gardens who have minted wealth over decades by exploiting workers and their families are least bothered to support and help them in this time of need.
The number of people testing positive for COVID-19 is increasing exponentially around the world and in India. Foreign countries and state governments in India have taken a variety of steps to deal with the pandemic. However the manner in which the Modi government is managing the pandemic shows that neither he nor does his government care for the people living in poverty.
In unparalleled times like these, governments must ensure that workers, including temporary workers, are paid in full during the lockdown. While the pandemic certainly requires social distancing and a planned lockdown, the survival of tea garden workers and other marginalized communities also necessitates the sharing of resources by individuals and companies who have historically looted and exploited Adivasi communities in tea gardens for generations.
Photo courtesy: Paul Salopek, National Geographic