“One of the biggest obstacles to tackling modern slavery is that it’s often hiding in plain sight” says the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and, as part of its 50 For Freedom campaign, has shared 10 ways to spot modern slavery.
Every one of these situations is experienced to a greater or lesser extent by India’s tea plantation workers. Yet, because their predicament began decades ago they are not usually considered to be victims of “modern slavery”. Which means they are not eligible for rescue and redress.
Is that fair? Judge for yourself. And, if you drink the tea they produce, you could help free them from slavery.
1. THEY’VE BEEN TRICKED
ILO: “Many victims of modern slavery are deceived into accepting what sound like good opportunities at first, but turn out to be lies.”
Gwyn Campbell writes (1): “A common occurrence, noted here in relation to Indo-China, the Bruma-Thai border, Arabia, Persia, India, Indonesia and Sulu, was that people sold themselves or their children in times of famine or other disaster. Slavery in such cases was sometimes justified as a form of ‘poor relief’…their condition differed from that of chattel slaves in that their families often accompanied them and laboured with them. They were also paid wages, although at a minimal rate. Most importantly, when their contracts ended they were free to leave the plantations. Thus, although planters often found ways to keep them, they were legally free.”
2. THEY’VE BEEN ISOLATED
ILO: “Victims can be isolated physically and forced to work in remote locations or simply prevented from communicating with friends, family or anyone else who speaks their own language.”
Keya Dasgupta (2) tells us that “… like slaves in the Americas, in both Mauritius and Assam, indentured labourers were uprooted from their homelands, settled in regions where they had no links with local people, and kept isolated on the plantations… a people uprooted from their own habitat, without any links with the surrounding community, would provide the ideal workforce for the exploitative mechanism of the plantation enterprise. ”
3. THEIR PASSPORTS HAVE BEEN TAKEN AWAY
ILO: “Confiscating passports or other important documents is a common means of coercing workers into accepting poor living and working conditions.”
Plantation labourers today are highly unlikely to have passports, and even less likely to have done so a hundred years ago. But as migrants from other areas, their lack of citizenship in their new home often causes conflict. Assam’s tea workers are descended from central Indian tribal communities, yet are ineligible for the state benefits of local tribals. The plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamil tea workers is another case in point “Although citizenship was finally granted to all stateless Persons of Indian Origin in 2003, most tea pickers in Sri Lanka still live without housing and land rights or access to basic services.” (New Internationalist – 2014)
4. THEY’RE WORKING OFF A DEBT
ILO: “Many victims of forced labour are trying to pay off a debt. It’s no ordinary debt though—as the victim has no power to negotiate the terms, which can change at the discretion of the “lender” and be passed down from generation to generation. This is called debt bondage and it’s especially common in Southern Asia.”
Dasgupta: “In the Brahmaputra valley of Assam, in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the plantation entrepreneurs, faced with a shortage of cheap and servile local workforce, took recourse to the immigration of thousands of labourers from economically depressed areas of the sub-continent. Through a system of legal compulsions initiated by the Colonial state, starting with the Workman’s Breach of Contract Act in 1859, they initiated the ‘indenture system’ of labour recruitment in the Brahmaputra Valley. This system, initiated for overseas migration of labour to the West Indies in the 1830s, was almost akin to slavery that preceded it, except that the workers were paid wages.”
5. THEY’RE PROMISED WAGES, BUT ARE NEVER PAID
ILO: “Irregular or late wages don’t always point to modern slavery. But when they’re deliberately withheld as a means of forcing workers to accept poor conditions or prevent them from changing jobs, it becomes a sign of forced labour.”
Even before India’s current demonetisation crisis, in which the withdrawal of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes has led to a severe cash shortage impacting heavily on low paid labourers, tea workers faced endless delays in wage payments. “Staff of 242 tea gardens yet to receive wages” is a fairly typical headline. While I’m not aware of evidence that withholding wages is a deliberate tactic, the payment of minimal cash wages supplemented by tied housing, food rations etc seals tea workers’ dependency on their employers.
6. THEY WORK EXTREME HOURS, BUT DON’T EARN OVERTIME
ILO: “Extreme work hours seem like an obvious indicator of forced labour, but in practice, establishing whether that’s the case can be fairly complex. As a rule of thumb, if an employee is forced to work more overtime than national laws allow—and is under some kind of threat—it’s considered forced labour.”
Fairtrade certified estates commit to paying overtime, but in general tea pluckers are paid according to the weight of tea they pluck. When Munnar’s tea workers struck over wages and working hours and conditions in 2015, they won a slight increase in wages, but only on condition they plucked more tea.
The World Bank’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) investigating a complaint about the International Finance Corporation (IFC)’s funding of Assam’s Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited found that “the IFC has not assured itself that the wages paid by the client are consistent with IFC’s commitment to support jobs which offer a ‘way out of poverty’ or ‘protect and promote the health’ of workers,”
7. THEY LIVE AND WORK IN ABUSIVE CONDITIONS
ILO: “A labour inspector in Brazil remembers finding workers in a fazenda, or plantation, housed in plastic shacks and drinking contaminated water… While not proof of forced labour on their own, poor working conditions are often red flag.”
Multiple reports testify to the poor housing, health, and occupational safety standards on Indian tea plantations – including most recently the 2016 CAO report, the 2014 Columbia Law School report and the BBC’s 2015 reports which claimed that “Living and working conditions are so bad, and wages so low, that tea workers and their families are left malnourished and vulnerable to fatal illnesses… There was also a disregard for health and safety, with workers spraying chemicals without protection, and on some estates, child labour being used.”
8, 9, 10 INTIMIDATION, TRAPPING & VIOLENCE
8. THEY’VE BEEN THREATENED OR INTIMIDATED (ILO: “Threats and intimidation are a staple of modern slavery, typically exploiting the vulnerability of a person who’s already in a weaker position.”), 9. THEY’RE PHYSICALLY TRAPPED (ILO: “Kidnapping people for exploitation or keeping them locked up is a clear sign of forced labour.”) and 10. THEY’VE BEEN BEATEN OR RAPED (ILO: “Physical violence is, tragically, a common feature of modern slavery. It can be used to exert control over victims or force them into performing tasks they didn’t agree to…”)
HELP FREE THEM FROM SLAVERY
(1) Gwyn Campbell, ‘Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia’
(2)) Keya Dasgupta, ‘The coming of tea in the Brahmapura Valley’.