No introduction is required for the ‘exotic’ Darjeeling tea, the name in itself is enough. We find images of green hills full of tea bushes in the packaging of the product. But we barely see the people who make this tea, more correctly, who have been making the tea since forever. Hundreds and thousands of workers, most of them women, are turned invisible in the fancy trade. We never see them in the packaging and we never hear about them. These are the workers who do the most painstaking task of the trade. Irrespective of rain, cold and heat, they attend the tea bushes 6 days a week. In the peak season, they are made to pluck a total of 20 kilograms of raw leaves, sometimes even more. Ironically, the painstaking work translates to a meagre wage of Rs. 130 per day. The wage is decided every three years in the tripartite meeting between the owners, government representative and the trade union representatives.
To add more trouble to the already troubled lives of the workers, this year the owners decided to only give a little more than 8% bonus. As the wage is meagre, the workers depend largely on the bonus to manage the festivities. As festivities arrived with full fervour, people of Darjeeling like everyone else were anticipating a great time. But the workers didn’t settle for a bonus that the owners offered. The meeting could not fix the bonus and it was decided that the next meeting would be held on the 16th of October, 2019, eight days after ‘tika’, the main festival of the people of Darjeeling.
As the owners were not ready to give 20% (as the workers insisted) bonus, it was for sure that the workers and their families would have a ‘not so fun’ dussehra. Immediately after the announcement, many activists and people from civil society came to the streets to protest the mindless and oppressive decision of the owners and to show solidarity to the struggling workers. The socio-political space of Darjeeling was infused with the ‘tea garden issue’, people started talking about the problem and the workers started to organize meetings. The wage in the tea garden is meager and the work is painstaking, yet, in the past 6-7 decades, Darjeeling has hardly witnessed any major protest for the slavery wages of the workers who produce apparently the costliest of tea.
The consumption of the Darjeeling tea by the elite upper class, the frenzy, and the hype has never translated into better wages for the workers. The workers still live a deplorable life, they are not able to fund their children’s education and most of the youth travel to faraway cities for work. The worker’s narrative of an unfulfilled life is lost in the cacophony of content created by the owners which talk about the historical legacy of Darjeeling tea which is colloquially also called the green gold. The only positive side of the bonus humdrum is that it started the public discourse on the tea garden issue and that the youth are connecting themselves with the historical trauma and oppression caused by the tea industry.
A detailed report by one of the activists can be found here