Published: 16/07/2010

An international IUF fact-finding team has been denied access to an Assam plantation to investigate the recent deaths of three workers. The plantation is owned by Amalgamated Plantations in which Tata Global Beverages is the major shareholder. The 930 hectare Powai estate has one of the world’s largest tea-processing factories and employs some 1,800 permanent and 1,200 temporary workers. Tata is already under fire for its brutal attacks on tea workers and their rights in West Bengal.

At the request of trade unions in Assam, the IUF convened a team of trade unionists and legal experts to inquire into the deaths at Powai tea estate in Tinsukia district, Assam, on  May 28. 2010. One worker died while spraying pesticides on the estate; two were killed when police fired on a group protesting his death. Fifteen others were seriously injured by police fire.

The team was to due to investigate from July 14-17, 2010 but the investigation had to be abruptly terminated because of threats by management at Powai. The estate managers refused to allow the team to meet with workers in their homes (commonly called labour lines) even though the law in India guarantees “access to the public to those parts of the plantation wherein the workers are housed.”

When the team tried to visit the workers’ homes they were intercepted by managers accompanied by drunken thugs who insisted that the area was “private property,” and “our land”. In fact the land belongs by law to the Government of Assam. When the IUF team pointed out that Indian law allows workers to receive visitors in their homes, they were insulted and threatened. The managers shouted that they would have to get permission from the Deputy Commissioner and then said, “Even if you get permission from the DC, we will see to it that you cannot enter.” They threatened to smash the car and seize cameras. When the team was finally forced to leave in order to avoid being physically attacked, they observed that the roads within and around the estate were lined with dozens of police officers.

What is Tata Hiding in Assam?

The team, again accompanied by trade union representatives, also attempted to visit the Powai estate hospital to meet with the three workers injured by police fire. This was done at the request of workers’ families. When the delegation attempted to meet these injured workers, a manager from Powai blocked entry to the hospital, saying that the delegation would not be permitted to meet the workers even if they returned during visiting hours.

More than six weeks after police opened fire on them, the injured workers are still being kept at the estate hospital. Their families have not been informed about their health status or why further treatment is necessary.

Commenting after the incidents, Sukata Gothoskar of IUF India said “It is shocking that the police and administration have failed to protect workers’ rights to receive visitors in their own homes.  Instead of offering protection and assistance to the fact-finding delegation, and calling for management to obey the law, they have helped the Tata Enterprise management to barricade the roads leading to the estate”.

The Assam tea employers’ organisation, ABITA, has chosen to avoid the issue altogether, claiming that no staff member would have time to meet with the IUF team at any point whatsoever.

Meetings that the team was able to hold with the families of the workers who were killed revealed their pain and frustration in the face of a callous management and unresponsive administration.  The mother of the worker who died after being shot twice in the back by police, herself a tea plucker, was disciplined for having failed to go to work in the days after her son’s death.

Even after the death of Gopal Tanti, the worker who collapsed while spraying pesticides on  May 28, the team found that pesticide sprayers at Powai are still not provided with personal protective equipment including masks and gloves.

Pesticides commonly used in tea growing include organocholrines (e.g. endosulfan), organophosphates, and pyrethrins. While the toxicity of these individual pesticides has long been established there has been little research about their combined impact as a toxic cocktail on human health.

The IUF has protested their denial of access to the workers and the estate to the Chief Minister, the Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police, calling on them to guarantee the safety of the IUF team and to allow it to conclude its inquiry. These authorities have acknowledged receipt of the IUF letter but have refused to cooperate in any way. This has been in keeping with the team’s experience of all administration offices dealing with the Powai incident, including the Assistant Labour Commissioner.

The IUF Assam team will not yield to intimidation and illegality. A well-attended press conference was quickly organized in response to the abrupt cancellation of the investigation. The team will now review secondary sources and other materials and produce a final report and a set of recommendations by mid-August 2010.

One key question they will be asking is: why was live ammunition used as a first measure and without warning against workers protesting against the death of a colleague?