Working conditions on tea plantations backed by World Bank attacked in report

Will Green is news editor of Supply Management
13 February 2014

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13 February 2014 | Will Green

Working conditions on tea plantations in India that supply the owner of the Tetley brand have been criticised in a report.

Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute conducted a three-year study into working and living conditions at plantations owned by Amalgamated Plantations Private Ltd (APPL) and found employees experienced denial of statutory benefits and inadequate housing and sanitation.

However, APPL, a spin-off from Tata Group in which Tata is a minority shareholder, has denied breaking the law and described the report as “incorrect and misleading in some parts, which are injurious to our interests and defamatory”.

Tata Global Beverages, which owns Tetley, said APPL was one of 160 suppliers it used for products in India and it did not use APPL tea in any other markets.

In a report, entitled The More Things Change… The World Bank, Tata and Enduring Abuses on India’s Tea Plantations, the researchers claim conditions on plantations in Assam and West Bengal breach the Plantations Labour Act (PLA), which stipulates benefits such as accommodation and medical services for workers and their families.

The report, based on visits to 17 plantations, claimed some workers and family members are denied free healthcare, while employees, who earn $1.50 a day in Assam, must present themselves three times day at the hospital for verification during sick leave.

Researchers found “dilapidated homes lacking protection from rain and wind” and “overflowing latrines that created a network of cesspools throughout the labour lines, the living area for workers and their families”.

The World Bank’s private investment arm the International Finance Corporation (IFC) is also criticised for investing in APPL when it was spun off from Tata Tea, which involved a share scheme for employees that was “rolled out with threats and duress” and provides dividends lower than bank deposit interest rates, it is claimed.

Ashwini Sukthankar, research co-director, said: “Worker ownership and diversification – the most highly vaunted elements of the transition – are obviously appealing, but the implementation was so outrageous that it casts doubt on the sincerity of the project.”

Research director Peter Rosenblum said: “The IFC acted with an excess of enthusiasm and an absence of attention to the known problems in the plantation sector.”

In a response to the report APPL said it “always functioned within the scope and ambit of statutes and laws and followed the highest levels of corporate governance”.

The firm, which employs more than 31,000 people, said it “provides quality healthcare services to all strata of people at reasonable and affordable costs” while “estate employees are treated free of cost”.

Denying any duress in the share scheme, the company said: “APPL is run by a dynamic management and believes in continuous upgradation (sic) of standards of working and operations.”

In a statement the IFC said it was reviewing the report’s findings “together with APPL and will take into account their recommendations as we continue to work to improve conditions on the ground”.

In a statement Tata said: "Tata Global Beverages sources tea from 160 suppliers for its teas in the Indian market.  One of these suppliers, APPL, has provided 350kg of tea in the last three years, a tiny proportion of the 90 million kilogrammes of tea we sell to the Indian domestic market each year.  No APPL tea is used in any of our products anywhere else in the world."

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