Published: 15/01/2010

Nearly one thousand tea workers and their families continue to suffer collective punishment at the hands of India’s Tata Group.

Workers at the Nowera Nuddy Tea Estate in West Bengal, India went without pay, food and rations from September 14 until December 12 last year following a protest in August 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.

During the three months to December 12, during which there was no pay and no statutory rations,  the only food the workers received was a single serving of emergency relief supplies distributed by the local district administration, normally reserved for the victims of natural disasters. The lockout was clearly intended to teach the workers a lesson: if you want to eat, renounce your right to protest!

The Nowera Nuddy estate was reopened on December 12 following a meeting the previous day between management, trade unions and the Deputy Labour Commissioner. Tetley’s Peter Unsworth announced, in response  to protest messages, that an “honorable settlement” had resolved the conflict.

If a formal agreement was reached to reopen the estate, no worker has ever seen it. The 8 workers remain suspended. The workers have not received any wages or rations owed them from the period of the lockout.

A large and growing majority of workers have signed a petition circulated by the Action Committee which led the struggle, with IUF support, during the brutal 3-month lockout pushed thousands of workers to the brink of starvation. The petition calls for the full payment of all wages, rations and other entitlements for the period of the closure; reinstatement of the suspended workers with full payment of wages, rations etc.; full disclosure of the terms under which the estate was reopened; an apology and compensation to Mrs. Arti Oraon; and assurances from management that pregnant workers’ legal right to light duties from 6.5 months and paid leave from 7.5 months would be fully respected.

Tata Tea is a powerful global company; its 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. Tea from Amalgamated Plantations’ tea estates goes into the famous Tetley Tea bags. Tetley Tea is also a member of the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), whose standard commits member companies to ensure, among other requirements, that there is no “harsh or inhumane treatment” of plantation workers.

The struggle for justice continues at Nowera Nuddy, led by the workers’ Action Committee. You can support their demands – click here to send a message to Tata/Tetley!