Chaay Garam (The Heat in Tea), a documentary on tea workers, dispenses quickly with the dominant imagery of idyllic tea estates with happy ethnic women plucking lush green leaves. It moves straight away to focus on the uglier side of tea production, a system that enslaves and exploits a working class predominantly from oppressed nationalities. The slavery and bondage of Tamil Nadu tea plantation workers in the colonial era was movingly captured in the book ‘Red Tea’ by PH Daniel (This book was recently translated into Tamil titled ‘Eriyum Panikkadu’). What Chay Garam shows is that these conditions have not changed for the plantation working class in West Bengal.
According to the documentary, more than 11 lakh people were brought from places like Bastar, Rourkella, Ranchi and Chota Nagpur or from the Himalayan regions of Nepal, and were pushed into slavery during the colonial era into the Darjeeling hills, Terai and Dooars regions, which have nearly 300 tea plantations. Over three generations of the workers have continued to live and work in these tea plantations. In 1955, a workers movement that emerged from these hills and demanded for better working conditions including annual bonuses met with state repression. However these protests won the formulation of the Plantation Labour Rules for the state of West Bengal in 1956 based on the central Plantation Labour Act 1951.
The Plantation Labour Act guarantees decent working conditions to plantation workers with provisions for holidays, over time, housing, medical facilities, canteen and other amenities. However the state machinery to regulate and ensure these entitlements for the workers have been lacking. According to a Labour Report by Central Ministry, the West Bengal Ministry has not been able to provide basic information on the provision of most of these amenities in plantations.
The low fines imposed in such violations, averaging about Rs 500 per violation, is indicative of the impunity with which these industries can get away with violation rather than implementation. Since then, the Labour Department of the West Bengal government has prepared a detailed report which shows the miserable state of the tea garden workers and the state of distribution of the promised facilities.
More damning however, have been the reports emerging on starvation deaths in these hills, which even the national media has found it hard to ignore recently. In this context, the documentary points out that the Body Mass Index of over 40% of tea plantation workers in some surveyed tea gardens of West Bengal is lower than 18.5 which means, according to the definition by UNO, that the workers are in a state of ‘perennial hunger’. The major cause of this issue is the low wages in tea plantation, which in 2015 was at Rs 122.50. In comparison, the minimum wage in Kerala (after adding the Variable Dearness Allowance or VDA) is Rs 300 (which was won after a struggle by women workers) and Rs 200+ in Tamil Nadu. Even the agricultural wage for NREGA in West Bengal is set at Rs 150.
Ironically, there is no minimum wage for plantation workers in West Bengal (and also in Assam). Instead, the state leaves wages to be set based on a trilateral agreement process among unions and the management, in the presence of the labour department of the government. This process is in violation of the spirit of minimum wage act which must ensure a minimum wage from which any collective bargaining can be negotiated. Without a minimum wage set by the State, the wage is left to the vagaries of negotiation skills. Indeed the documentary and other reports highlight the failure of such process. According to one such report, a trilateral negotiation started with unions demanding Rs 100 as wage increment and ending up with Rs 10 as the increment in 2012. That this could happen with representation from many unions including central trade unions AITUC, CITU, INTUC, AICCTU, UTUC and HMS under a Left State Government has to be a matter of introspection at the very least for the Left parties and trade unions. The conditions of workers in West Bengal and Kerala as reflected by recent struggles in Kerala not only point to a crisis in these industries but also a crisis in trade unionism. The unions and labour activists have now called for a minimum wage specification possessing the basic and VDA component to be implemented in states like Tamil Nadu. The struggles of the plantation workers and unions are moving towards these demands, as per the documentary.
The documentary also discredits the myth that has been created in the wake of the starvation deaths, that there is a crisis in tea industry with closure of tea estates. The activists highlight how the industry has circumvented the official processes such as auction marketing, to sell tea in black market and how according to the Tea Board, the rate of increase in supply (3%) is trailing the rate of increase in demand (12%), in the domestic market, proving that industry is not in a crisis. In addition, the tea industry recorded highest production and export last year, with an increase in average price realization (leading to higher profits) of over 8% and this was contributed primarily by West Bengal and Assam tea gardens. In effect, the misery of the plantation workers has become the vehicle for industry to get more favors from the State and the deplorable condition of workers has become another mechanism for capital to reproduce itself.
Chay Garam gives a history to the workers, who have become the face of construction sites, hotels, rice mills and agricultural workers of Tamil Nadu, who are likely to have escaped from highly exploitative conditions for a marginally better life. The documentary creates a space for workers in Tamil Nadu to understand and engage and create solidarity with the migrant workers, which is long due.