Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tea and Sugar -give the workers a break!

TWO reports from the international federation of food workers' trade unions, IUF tell us that two commodities we may associate with a welcome break and a touch of sweetness are linked with hunger, blood, sweat and tears at the producing end.

First from India, we learn that nearly 1,000 workers have been locked out at the Nowera Nuddy Tea Estate in West Bengal. If, like me, you had never heard of it, think Tetley tea bags. Because the workers are employed by the giant Tata group which makes the world-famous Tetley teas.

The workers and their dependants are always on the edge of hunger,IUF says, and now some 6,500 people are being pushed towards starvation. They have been deprived of wages for all but two days since the beginning of August.

The first lockout came on August 10, when workers protested 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 eight months pregnant. On August 9, Mrs Arti Oraon collapsed in the field and was brought to the hospital, on a tractor normally used for garbage, after the medical officer refused to make an ambulance available (he had proposed she be brought by bicycle). She was initially refused treatment, and only after her co-workers protested did she receive minimal care. Her treatment was inadequate and she had to be taken, in the same garbage tractor, to the local government hospital one hour away.

As news of her treatment spread, some 500 mostly female estate workers gathered in protest at the medical facility, demanding sanctions against the medical officer. Local management promised to meet with the workers, but on August 11 the management, along with the medical officer, left the estate and declared a lockout.

On August 27 an agreement was signed with three trade unions, representing some workers on the estate but not a majority, on reopening the garden. In the agreement, all workers' wages for the lockout period were withheld. The agreement included a clause that a 'domestic inquiry' (an internal, company-controlled investigation) would be conducted. The agreement was written in English, a language few if any of the workers understand.

The garden was reopened the following day, although workers were not informed of the conditions of the reopening. On September 8, management issued letters of suspension and ordered a domestic inquiry against eight workers. None of the eight workers received a letter of notification. None of the eight had committed any act of violence or were involved in any illegal practice. These eight workers have been targeted because they are active in the garden campaigning for workers' rights.

At a September 10 meeting, management told the workers that suspension letters had been issued in accordance with the August 27 agreement and that opening the garden depended on compliance with that agreement. In other words: agree to the suspensions or you'll be locked-out again. Workers requested six days to respond to this ultimatum.

The ultimatum was a powerful one: tea garden wages are just 62.50 Indian rupees per day - the equivalent of USD 1.35 daily. One kilogram of the cheapest, poorest quality rice in the local market costs 20% of a worker's daily wage. Tea workers permanently live on the edge of hunger. The loss of wages for even a few weeks can tip them into starvation.

Although wielding the weapon of hunger - with workers' lives in the balance and the deadline to respond not yet expired - management on September 14 again left the plantation and implemented a lockout. This was the day workers were meant to receive their annual festival bonus, amounting to roughly two months wages. No bonus payments were made. Prior to the lockout, since the beginning of August workers have only received a wage payment amounting to two days work.

Following the closure, workers have sought to communicate with the management, requesting it to reopen the garden. The company has insisted that the garden will not be reopened and wages paid unless all workers accept the September 10 ultimatum to effectively sign off their right to protest abuses.

Tata Tea is a powerful global company; it's wholly owned Tetley Tea is one of the world's biggest-selling tea brands. Nowera Nuddy Tea Estate is owned by Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited, a company 49.98% owned by Tata Tea. Tata and Amalgamated share the same office in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal. According to the Tata Tea 2009 annual report, Tata Tea Managing Director Percy T. Siganporia earns in a single day roughly 1,000 times the daily wage of a Nowera Nuddy worker assuming that worker is paid .

Tea from Amalgamated Plantations' tea estates goes into the famous Tetley Tea bags.

Tetley Tea is a member of the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), whose standard commits member companies to, among other requirements, ensure that there is no "harsh or inhumane treatment" of plantation workers and that "Workers should be paid at least monthly and should receive their pay on time." The actual conditions on the Nowera Nuddy estate, where workers are being subjected to brutal collective punishment, could not be more remote from this CSR wish list.

Workers at the Nowera Nuddy Tea Estate have formed an Action Committee which has called for the immediate reopening of the garden, the withdrawal of the suspension letters and no recriminations against workers, back payment of wages and rations since 14 September, immediate payment of the annual festival bonus and a management apology to Mrs Arti Oraon.

You can support their struggle CLICK HERE to tell Tata and Tetley Tea to stop starving workers now! You can also use the features provided on the Tetley Tea website to send the company a message, or use the freephone number provided to give them a call!

Meanwhile in Iran...

Though media interest in struggles in Iran seemed to start and finish with this Summer's election clashes, the workers and some of the minorities in Iran were battling the regime before and are still struggling against repression now.

Leaders of an independent sugarworkers union are in prison in the city of Dezful, because of their trade union activity. In a drive to destroy the union established last year by workers at the giant Haft Tapeh plantation/refining sugar complex, a court on October 12 sentenced 5 union leaders to immediate prison terms on charges stemming from October 2007. Three leaders convicted for their union activity last year for "endangering national security" in connection with worker action in 2008 had their sentences overturned on appeal in September. Two union officers, president Ali Nejati and communications officer Reza Rakhshan, both of whom face lengthy prison sentences, were still awaiting the outcome of their appeal when the court in the city of Dezful sentenced them on the similar 2007 charges.

Ghorban Alipour, Feridoun Nikoufard, Jalil Ahmadi, and Ali Nejati were all sentenced to six months' immediate imprisonment and six months suspended sentences over five years; during which time they are barred from union activity. Mohammad Heydari Mehr received a four-month term, eight months suspended. Ali Nejati must serve his suspended sentence as prison time, meaning he faces an immediate one-year prison term. Should he lose his appeal on the 2008 conviction, his sentence could stretch to over two years. Reza Rakhshan is still awaiting the final sentencing in his case.

Haft Tapeh workers in recent years have repeatedly had to resort to strikes and other actions to claim huge wage arrears and protest deteriorating working conditions. The union was officially founded in June 2008 following a 42-day strike to demand long-standing arrears. The Haft Tapeh union is an IUF affiliate.

The IUF says the fate of imprisoned transport and teachers' union activists in Iran shows that the Haft Tapeh prisoners risk prolonged physical and psychological abuse. The IUF is urging all defenders of democratic and trade union rights to mobilize in their defense. It says:

"Act Now! - CLICK HERE to send a message to the Iranian state and judicial authorities, calling on them to immediately and unconditionally release the jailed unionists and annul their sentences, and drop all charges against Reza Rakhshan. Please note that some messages may bounce back - do not be discouraged! Server overload is a common condition in Iran - some messages will get through, making the point that the persecuted trade unionists enjoy international support. The Haft Tapeh union leaders are also supported by Amnesty International.

"You can also send a message to the Iranian embassy or diplomatic representation in your country - or pay them a visit! A complete list of embassies/consulates is available here, and you can generally find e-mail addresses by searching the internet for the individual representation in your country".

...And here's something else you can do about Iran.

IRAN'S President Ahmadinejad likes playing on hostility, threats and sanctions from his country's enemies to divert attention, and keep people behind him at home. Some Western liberals and even union people talk as though Iran has the only repressive regime in the region, while some people in the anti-war movement pretend there is nothing wrong in Iran, and even attack anyone, including left-wing Iranian refugees, who says there is.

Hands Off the People of Iran(HOPI) rejects the hypocrisy of the Western powers, which support Israel's nuclear arsenal and occupation, and the reactionary Saudi regime, and have unleashed terror and destruction on the people of Iraq whom they claimed to "liberate". But we also reject the notion that Iranians must face a grim choice between enduring Islamicist dictatorship or suffering imperialist war.

HOPI takes part in the anti-war movement, and maintains links with Iranian exiles, students and trade unionists, enabling them to have a voice. HOPI has raised support in British trade unions, and raised material support for our sisters and brothers struggling in Iran.

You can join HOPI, get your union to affiliate, and come to the HOPI AGM in London on November 28.

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