May 14, 2019
A special report by Tsering D Gurung looks at conditions for tea workers in Nepal.
The Budhakaran Tea Estate, a sprawling property located in the town of Bhadrapur in Jhapa, would usually be teeming with activity this time of the year.
Today, it is eerily quiet.
Tea leaves meant to have been plucked with the onset of Spring have turned yellow. The gate to the processing factory has been locked for over a month.
The only individuals working on the estate, which employs nearly 150 people, are two men guarding the owner’s home.
Since April 1, tea plantation workers across eastern Nepal have gone on strike, shutting down estates to demand their employers implement the minimum daily wage and provide other benefits including social security and medical insurance guaranteed under the 2017 Labour Act.
Although the law came into effect last July, almost all the workers say they have not seen an increase in their pay.
“How can we survive on such a low wage? We have to feed our family, send our children to school,” said Jasinta Khadiya, 46, a plantation worker at Budhakaran, during a gathering of tea workers last week to discuss plans for a mass demonstration.
“Prices for everything have gone up, but our wages remain the same.”
Like many others here, Khadiya grew up on the plantation, learnt the tricks of the tea garden trade watching her parents pluck and prune. And when she was 16, she joined the workforce, doing the same thing her parents had done all their lives.
The plantation is also where she met her husband, and together they now have four children.
“This place is everything for us. It’s our home, it’s where our friends and family live and work,” said Khadiya. “But it hasn’t always treated us well.”
Under new laws, the daily minimum wage for industrial workers like Khadiya has been set at Rs385 (under $4$6).
But owners have refused to increase their daily wage, currently Rs278 (under $34).
Two dollars a day means a lot more for them than most in the outside world can imagine.
Apart from the increase in the daily minimum wage, the new law requires employers to contribute to a social security fund for their workers and signing them up for medical and accident insurance.
“Our demands aren’t outrageous,” said Rajkumar Tamang, representative of All Nepal Tea Plantation Workers’ Union. “All we are asking is that the employers pay their workers in accordance with the law.”
On a hot and humid afternoon last week, hundreds of tea plantation workers descended upon the eastern city of Birtamode, lay down on the scorching asphalt roads and blocked traffic on Nepal’s main East-West Highway.
It was a desperate cry for attention.
With the strike now having entered its seventh week and with no signs of a possible resolution between the parties, workers are beginning to get anxious.
Many have run out of the little savings they had. Some of them have taken out loans to feed themselves, others are foraging for food in the forests.
“We didn’t think this would go on for so long,” said Kelena Hembram, 45, a worker from Budhakaran Tea Estate. “Many of us thought the issue would be resolved within 15-20 days as it has been in the past.”
Hembram said she has been unable to find a temporary job to tide her over because potential employees think she will go back to her old job once the strike is over.
But despite their sufferings, workers are determined to continue their fight for a fair wage.
Rabi Lal Murmu, a worker at Gupta Tea Eastate in Bharatpur, says tea workers like him are cutting down on food to see them through the ongoing strike.
“Instead of two meals a day, we are now surviving on one,” said Murmu, 53. “But we won’t back down. The management has always tried to deprive us of our benefits and now we want to stand up to them.”
This is not for the first time that tea workers have gone an indefinite strike.
During the 2006 People’s Movement, workers shut down tea estates across the country for 19 days.
At the time, one of their main demands was for temporary employees to be made permanent.
Since then, several small-scale agitations have been staged, mostly demanding an increase in wages.
Following the 2006 demonstration, thousands of workers were granted permanent status and handed appointment letters.
But the benefits promised in the letters haven’t been provided to the workers, said Baniya, a tea estate worker in Budhakaran.
“We were promised a lot of things,” said Baniya, who lives on the estate with his family of six. “But we have been given nothing.”
Baniya and his family have been living in the same one-room mud shack since he first began working on the plantation nearly forty years ago.
The roof, made of a corrugated tin sheet, is full of holes which leak water when it rains.
Their home represents quite accurately the living condition of workers and their families across the estate who have been left to fend for themselves.
While workers are offered minimal benefits and provided no proper work gear, they are expected to be highly productive.
According to workers, their supervisors cut their pay for a plethora of reasons, including for not meeting a daily quota of leaves plucked and for showing up even a few minutes late for work.
“We have to pluck 30kg worth of tea leaves in a single shift,” said Hembram. “If we fall short, the supervisor docks our pay accordingly.”
Although some workers who are quick to finish picking leaves to meet their quota by noon, many others are forced to work the entire day — or take a pay cut.
For many agitating workers, the strike is more than just about demanding their own welfare.
It’s also about ensuring that the next generation of workers will not be bereft of their rights.
“We are doing this for our sons and daughters who will eventually go on to replace us,” said Baniya.
The agitation began around the same time as the start of the Spring harvest season known as the ‘first flush,’ which marks the first tea leaf plucking period of the year.
Leaves plucked during the season are said to be of prime quality and are prized for their aroma and the lightness of the brew they produce.
Since the strike began, production has dropped by 20 per cent. According to industry insiders, the resultant estimated loss is in the range of one billion Nepali rupees.
Across eastern Nepal, however, plantation owners speak of their own woes.
A few of them who spoke to the Post said they would go out of business if they were to enforce the monthly minimum wage and social security scheme mandated by the government.
“We will not be able to run the factory if the workers’ demands are met,” Suresh Mittal, president of the Tea Producers Association in Jhapa, told the Post last month.
Rajan Singh, managing director of Budhakaran Tea Estate, said in an interview that while he is not against fulfilling the demands of his workers, without any government assistance the cost of production would be too high to keep the business afloat.
“The government brought in these laws without any consultation with stakeholders,” said Singh.
“We are not saying we don’t want to comply with the new laws; but we are just not in a position to do so without any help from the government.”
On the flip side, union leaders feel the government has not done much to ensure owners are enforce the law.
“The state hasn’t really shown any concern for the workers who have been on strike for nearly two months now,” said Tamang, the union representative in Budhakaran.
“By not taking charge of the situation, it’s basically telling the workers ‘you are on your own’,” he added
Nepal’s Ministry of Labour and Employment has hosted several rounds of talks between representatives of the Tea Producers Association, trade unions and government officials.
During the meetings, tea producers put forth their own list of demands, asking the government for a concession on VAT, permission to allow operation of hotels/resorts on the estates and permission to diversify their crops.
“If the state doesn’t provide any relief to us, we can’t sustain our business,” Subhash Sangai, director of Nepal Tea Corporation iterated.
But many workers believe tea estate owners are simply trying to milk the situation and their narrative that they will go out of business if they were to comply with the government’s rules on labour wages and benefits is completely baseless.
“If they are not making any money out of tea, how come they keep expanding the estate?” said Baniya, referring to his own plantation.
Last week, Minister of Labour Gokarna Bista reportedly issued a warning to tea estate owners — start opening plantations in the next few days or tell us formally you can’t run your businesses…
Following Bista’s not-so-veiled threat, several tea gardens including four operated by the Triveni Group, one of the biggest players in the sector and the producer of the popular Tokla Tea, have agreed to start paying the revised wages and re-opened on Sunday.
Others will soon follow, officials at the ministry said.
“The talks have been successful. Several owners have agreed to comply with the new labour laws and have already opened their plantations,” said Mahesh Prasad Dahal, secretary at the ministry.
But the workers back in Budhikaran are still wary.
The owner, Rajan Singh, has not met with workers and there is no word on whether he will agree to implement the new guidelines under the Labour Act.
“If this can’t be resolved peacefully and through dialogue, then we will have to seek an alternative course,” said Tamang, the union representative.
“We are dying, so we won’t refrain from killing,” he added ominously.