Bitter Tea, Common Threads
TEA plantation workers near Darjeeling
TEA workers employed by a giant company with world-wide sales are waging a struggle for basic human rights and decent treatment.
Workers on the Nowera Nuddy Tea Estate in West Bengal, India protested over the treatment of a tea plucker in an advanced stage of pregnancy who was denied maternity leave and forced to work. Management tried to starve them into submission by denying all wages and rations for 3 months. Criminal charges carrying lengthy prison sentences have been filed against 12 workers - including the pregnant woman who collapsed in the field and was denied immediate medical care.
Two workers, including her father, have been sacked from their jobs. And management continues to reject the union's long standing demands, responding instead with more threats.
Nowera Nuddy Tea Estate is owned by Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited, a company 49% owned by Tata Global Beverages, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of India’s powerful Tata Group conglomerate.
Tata's Tetley Tea is 100% Tata-owned, and sources tea from Amalgamated - though not, it claims, from Nowera Nuddy, an argument it has employed to excuse itself from responsibility for brutal management practices at Nowera Nuddy. Tetley is the second biggest-global tea brand, and a leading member of the UK's Ethical Tea Partnership.
The Nowera Nuddy workers, organized in the Progressive Tea Workers Union (PTWU) and supported by the International Union of Foodworkers, (IUF), are still struggling with the brutal consequences of a punishing 3-month lockout  inflicted on the estate, where 1,000 workers and their families workers not only work but also live. For these three months, management denied the workers all wages and food rations.
Management imposed the September-December 2009 lockout in response to a protest in August that year over the mistreatment of Mrs. Arti Oraon, a 22 year-old tea garden worker who was denied maternity leave and forced to continue work as a tea plucker despite being 8 months pregnant.
In response to the protest, management shut down operations for over two weeks, only reopening on September 8 on condition that 8 workers allegedly responsible for the spontaneous action be suspended and disciplined. When workers demanded time to respond, management again closed the estate on September 14, only reopening on December 13.
Management’s “domestic enquiry” into the suspensions, conducted in a language the workers do not speak and in which they were not allowed to defend themselves or present evidence, confirmed the suspensions. As a result of a campaign on the estate with international support from the IUF, six of the 8 were eventually reinstated in their jobs, but two workers, including Mrs. Oraon’s father, were sacked. And in April last year, in response to management complaints, police visited the plantation to announce that arrest warrants had been sworn out for Arti Oraon and 11 other worker activists, including the 8 already suspended workers, on charges, including theft, grievous bodily harm, unlawful assembly, criminal intimidation and unlawful confinement. These charges, which can carry prison terms of seven years and more, remain in force.
A workers rally this month reiterated their determination to fight for:
- Payment of full wages and rations to all workers for the period the plantation was closed from mid-September through mid-December 2009;
- Reinstatement of Sudhir Xalxo and Kishor Toppo, the two workers terminated for their alleged roles in the protest surrounding the mistreatment of the pregnant Mrs. Oraon;
- Withdrawal in writing of the management police complaints which led to the criminal charges against the 12 workers;
- A letter of apology and compensation to Mrs Oraon.
Nowera Nuddy tea workers assembly
You can support their struggle by sending a message to Tata/Tetley – the power behind local management – telling them to meet the workers’ demands NOW!
To send a message, click here .
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!
International union web-site: www.iuf.org
Meanwhile, across the border in Bangladesh it has now been more than five weeks since the illegal arrest of Moshrefa Mishu, President of the Garment Workers Unity Forum.
There was no warrant for her arrest at the time that heavily-armed plainclothes officers took her off to jail, where she remains - in poor health and badly treated. Her real crime was leading a protest campaign to demand the implementation of the legal minimum wage.
For more information about Moshrefa Mishu and her case, and ways to protest her treatment, see http://www.ahrchk.net/ua/mainfile.php/2010/3627/
Garment trade employers in Bangladesh are their country's main exporter, but claim they have been under pressure from even cheaper competitors in places like Cambodia . So it is timely to note that Cambodian garment workers are also engaged in struggle.
Over 300 have been sacked after they went on strike last September, asking for a wage increase that would ensure basic provisions such as sufficient nutrition and shelter. Well known brands such as Gap, Zara and H&M source from a large number of the involved factories.
Campaigners are urging that these workers are allowed to return to work immediately, with compensation paid for the time they have been dismissed:
And the Cambodian embassy in London might want to hear from you, as it already has been doing from Brent Trades Union Council, since it is in that borough. (see
Royal Cambodian Embassy in the UK,
64, Brondesbury Park,
London NW6 7AT
020 8451 7850
Fax 020 8451 7594