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Tainted Tea: The Abysmal Conditions on Assam’s Tea Estates


A fairly recent BBC investigation shed light on the squalid living and working conditions existing on some tea estates in India’s northeastern state of Assam. Some of the world’s best-known tea brands buy from these estates.1 The report elicits many questions about the need for greater visibility and accountability along the supply chain, as well as about the price of a simple cup of tea (Camellia sinensis, Theaceae).

Assam is a Y-shaped state containing 32 districts that lies at the southern edge of the Eastern Himalayan Mountains and straddles the Brahmaputra River.2-4 It is contained within an area of land surrounded by Bhutan to the northwest, China to the north, Myanmar to the east, and Bangladesh to the southwest. Assam is the largest tea-producing region in the world.4 According to the Tea Board of India, for the 12-month period that ended March 31, 2015, the state produced 606.8 million kilograms of tea (more than 1.3 billion pounds), accounting for 50.7% of India’s total production for that time period and approximately 13% of total world production.5,6 At the end of 2013, 304,400 hectares (more than 1,175 square miles) in Assam were dedicated to the production of tea.7




There are more than 800 tea estates in Assam.8 On some of those estates, the BBC exposed conditions that are eye-opening, even in a country in which 363 million people (29.5% of the population) fell below the poverty line from 2011 to 2012 (the most recent period analyzed).9

Living Conditions

On the Doomur Dullung estate, which is owned by the Assam Company and supplies tea brands Twinings, Yorkshire Tea, Harrods, and Fortnum & Mason (see Table 1 for company details), the BBC found terrible sanitation. Many toilets were clogged and/or broken. One woman, who shared a tiny house with six other people, had not had a working toilet in 36 years. Her requests to have it repaired were ignored by management for years, forcing her to defecate among the tea bushes. In other cases, cesspits, which were dug because septic tanks were full, were alarmingly close to drinking water sources, and some of those cesspits were even overflowing into living areas. This is despite the Plantations Labour Act (PLA) of 1951, which was enacted by the Indian government four years after independence (the end of the British Raj) and requires estate owners to provide and maintain “adequate” housing and sanitary toilets for workers.1,10





The PLA details the benefits employers must provide (including health care, housing, sanitation, etc.) and sets limits on employer control of workers, but the act has never been aggressively enforced.10,11 In addition, it remains based on the colonial system. Even though it outlines care requirements owed to workers, it maintains a system of cradle-to-grave dependency.12 The framework of this system makes it almost impossible for workers to access benefits they are entitled to receive from the state, causing some to question whether workers would be better off without the PLA.11

Also on the Doomur Dullung estate, workers were shocked to learn that a relatively small package of Fortnum & Mason tea grown on the estate could be sold in Britain for the equivalent of 750 rupees ($11.30). That is six and a half times what the workers make in one day.1

Shelters were in shambles, practically falling down. Many houses were surrounded by deep, thick mud. Roofs were riddled with holes, allowing rainwater to dump on workers as they sleep, which is significant because of the sheer amount of rain the area receives.1 During the monsoon season, which can begin as early as late May and can last until early October, Assam can receive as much as 10-12 inches of rain per day, making the need for adequate roofing apparent.13,14

Also, child labor was found on the estate. One girl, who said she was 14, had been picking tea full-time for two months. In addition, two other children on estates owned by the Assam Company said they had been employed full-time since they were in their early teens. The United Nations (UN) maintains that no child under age 15 should work full-time.1

The BBC also looked at homes provided to workers by the largest tea grower in the world, a company called McLeod Russel, whose estates supply some of the most common tea brands, including Lipton, Tetley, Twinings, and PG Tips.

Many of the houses managed by McLeod Russel also had broken roofs. In addition, walls were soaking wet and likely moldy, and yards were rampant with mosquitoes, which is significant because of the prevalence of malaria in the area. (In fact, a 2009 study, which examined 1,182 blood smears from workers on seven tea estates across two districts in Assam, found 506 [42.8%] to be positive for malaria, with Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes the most deadly type of malaria, being the most predominant.34,35)

The estate manager admitted to a huge backlog of repairs and said that defecation among tea bushes was not acceptable. He also said the estate has only 464 toilets for 740 homes.1 (This problem, however, is not uncommon in India. In fact, almost half of Indians do not have a toilet.36)

The BBC also found workers drinking rainwater piped from a stream. And most homes have no electricity.1

In addition, on one McLeod Russel estate, the BBC was denied entry to living areas, despite public access being guaranteed by the PLA. The company told the BBC it does not restrict worker movement, but it does restrict visitors.1

Poor Pay

Workers in Assam earn just 115 rupees ($1.77) per day, which is significantly below the minimum wage (177 rupees, or $2.73) in Assam.1 The industry-wide wage is set through a collective bargaining process among the state government, the workers union, and the Indian Tea Association, which is an advisory and supervisory body.37,38 The growers have successfully persuaded the government that “benefits-in-kind” make up for the below-minimum wage. In addition, the Indian Tea Association has claimed the industry is paying what it can afford. But rights groups say this is unethical; additional benefits are no substitute for earned wages, they say.39 Plus, this keeps the workers bound to the estates because it prevents them from building savings and seeking new opportunities.11

The latest collective bargaining agreement, which took effect on January 1, 2015, raised the wage from 95 rupees to the current 115 rupees per day. The state government has proposed increasing the wage to 143 rupees per day, which would still be below the minimum wage.36

In an article published by The Guardian, Alison Woodhead of Oxfam, an international confederation of 17 organizations dedicated to finding innovative ways to end poverty,40 is quoted as saying, “No matter how big and powerful, individual tea companies or certification organizations cannot tackle the deep-rooted and complex barriers to a living wage on their own. The best chance we have of eradicating poverty wages is for the whole industry — producers, governments, retailers, trade unions, companies and certification organizations — to work together to find a solution.”39

Health Problems

The combination of poor pay and poor living conditions can cause serious health problems in tea workers. At Assam Medical College, one of the main general hospitals that serves the tea region, medical director A.K. Das said about 90% of patients from tea estates are malnourished. Malnutrition opens the doors for “diseases of poverty,” such as diarrhea, respiratory tract infections, skin lesions, and more serious conditions like tuberculosis and meningitis, all of which are common among tea workers, according to the BBC report.1

Das said children from the tea estates are so malnourished they struggle to overcome curable illnesses. Then, when they are released from the hospital, they go back to the same conditions that caused the illnesses in the first place and often quickly relapse. As a result, Das said the children and their parents are significantly more likely than other patients at the hospital to die from their illnesses.1

Working Conditions

On one estate owned by the Assam Company workers were spraying chemicals without any protective gear. The company occasionally provides facemasks, gloves, and shoes, but the equipment does not last and workers are forced to do without.1

An estate manager confirmed the workers were spraying deltamethrin, a class II insecticide that can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, headaches, salivation, fluid in the lungs, convulsions, and paresthesia (skin sensation of tingling, tickling, prickling), among other symptoms.41

Goggles, a facemask, full overalls, gloves, and rubber boots should be worn while using deltamethrin, but workers said they almost always had to spray without protective gear and suffered side effects like breathing difficulties, numbness in the hands and face, and loss of appetite. Workers on one McLeod Russel estate were also seen spraying without protective gear.1

At Assam Medical College, Das said he frequently sees patients suffering serious side effects from pesticide exposure.1

Despite these reports, there is some good news relating to pesticide use. The Ethical Tea Partnership, which is an international membership organization of 40 tea companies working to make a difference in tea-growing regions, helped develop the Plant Protection Code, which was unveiled in March 2014. The policy requires the industry to minimize pesticide use and ensure responsible chemical management.36

Company Responses

The companies implicated in the exposé have responded in different ways. Harrods removed tea products from the Doomur Dullung estate from its shelves. The Assam Company called the BBC’s allegations “baseless and false.”1

McLeod Russel issued a response in which it stated that improving living conditions is an ongoing process best achieved in a phased manner. The statement pointed out that the company constructs 250 houses per year in Assam and is almost completely compliant despite the increasing requirements each year as workers’ families get larger.42

Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate, which owns Yorkshire Tea, said it was “extremely concerned” by the BBC’s findings and was investigating as a matter of urgency. A spokesman said the company is committed to improving the working and living standards of the communities it sources from, but since tea companies in the United Kingdom buy only 1.5% of India’s tea output, influencing positive change in India is often difficult.43

Unilever, which owns Lipton and PG Tips, said it takes the BBC’s allegations seriously. It said although progress has been made, there is still more work to be done to raise standards. Fortnum & Mason said the welfare of workers is of utmost importance.1

Tetley pointed to its co-founding of the Ethical Tea Partnership, of which Twinings and Yorkshire Tea are also members, as evidence of its commitment to sustainability and the ethical treatment of people across its supply chain.1,44

Positive Efforts

Some of these companies are taking steps to address some of these issues. For example, from 2011 to 2014, Twinings, in collaboration with UNICEF, an organization that works in 190 countries to promote the rights and well-being of children, helped reduce anemia levels among 7,000 girls living on tea estates by 13%.21,45 In addition, the company helped reduce the proportion of girls who were malnourished by a third.21

Tetley has worked with UNICEF to install water pumps and latrines on estates across Assam.44 McLeod Russel constructed and maintains 128 hospitals throughout Assam and West Bengal.42

A partnership between UNICEF and the Ethical Tea Partnership, with support from Tetley and Yorkshire Tea, was announced in 2014. The partnership is committed to improving the lives of families in 350 communities across 100 estates in Assam by improving education, thereby decreasing the potential for abuse and exploitation, especially of girls.45

Rainforest Alliance

All the estates visited by the BBC were Rainforest Alliance certified and had been awarded its frog seal, which can be found on the packages of many common tea brands.1 The seal indicates to consumers that the product they are buying has been grown and harvested using environmentally and socially responsible practices.46

To be awarded the seal, the Rainforest Alliance claims businesses must meet rigorous criteria designed to “protect workers, their families and local communities.”1 The BBC’s exposé understandably alarmed the Alliance and the companies that put stock in the Alliance’s certifications.1,44,47,48

Immediately following the BBC’s report, the Rainforest Alliance investigated the four estates in question and decertified one of them. The Alliance also planned unannounced audits for a quarter of all certified estates in Assam, and said that estates that did not address housing, water supply, and sanitation shortcomings would be decertified. Furthermore, the Alliance announced it will increase the standards for its certification process in 2016.48

In 2013, the Alliance said it hoped certified estates would be paying a realistic wage within five years.39

The Alliance admitted its process is not infallible. “Clearly an auditing process, because it rests on an annual inspection, is not going to be perfect,” director Edward Millard is quoted as saying in the BBC article. He also said housing is a systemic problem in Assam and that a really serious upgrade is needed.1

Stephen Ekka, an activist with the non-governmental organization PAJHRA who is campaigning to improve conditions on the tea estates, is quoted in the BBC article as saying he believes the Alliance’s frog seal “is more about selling tea than about empowering workers.”1

Despite these recent issues, Tetley claims the Rainforest Alliance has helped conserve the water, soil, and biodiversity of more than 50 million hectares (more than 193,000 square miles) of forest and farmland in 70 countries and improved the lives of more than 2 million workers and their families.44

Large companies like Tata (which owns Tetley), Unilever, Yorkshire Tea, and McLeod Russel value the Alliance’s certifications. In Unilever’s 2014 Annual Report, for example, which was released before the exposé, it was stated that Lipton planned to grow all its tea on Rainforest Alliance certified estates by 2015.30 Tetley plans to grow all its tea on certified estates by 2016.44 And Yorkshire Tea already grows all its tea on certified estates.47

Yorkshire Tea issued a statement saying that the estates implicated in the exposé were successfully audited by the Rainforest Alliance in March 2015 and that the company had visited the estates it buys from on three occasions in 2015. The statement also claims that Yorkshire Tea has never come across an instance of child labor on its estates and that this would result in decertification.47

Furthermore, Yorkshire Tea said that being certified means suppliers agree to maintain the standards that were required to earn the certification in the first place. The Rainforest Alliance requires workers to be provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) when spraying chemicals. Non-compliance would result in decertification. Yorkshire Tea’s suppliers have assured the company that PPE is available to all, but they say workers often go without the gear because of the extreme heat and humidity of the region. The company continues to work to educate workers about the importance of using PPE and to look at ways to adapt the equipment to be better-suited to the heat and humidity.47

The statement acknowledged that in Assam there are examples of both good and bad housing. It also pointed out that houses are often handed down through generations and that wider family networks sometimes live in houses not maintained by the estates.47

Other Issues and Unrest

The state of Assam faces many longstanding and widespread problems. Child trafficking is a major concern throughout India, but it is even more prevalent in Assam, especially lower Assam.49 Traffickers take advantage of the desperation of the tea workers who often cannot afford to support their children.39,49 Some workers are more likely to give in to traffickers during the off-season when they are not working (the first harvest in Assam starts in February, but the plucking is usually most productive from July to October, when monsoon season is in full-effect4).39

Traffickers often pose as businesspeople and promise good wages and an exciting new life in the city, but the reality is usually much different.39,49 Interestingly, many of the tea workers in Assam today are descended from people who, in the 1800s, were drawn from the central part of India to Assam by similarly deceptive stories told by the British.50

Today, most girls lured away from Assam end up in Delhi where they are sold to agents for as little as 4,474 rupees (about $68) and then sold again to employers for up to 64,630 rupees (about $978). They are then kept as slaves, and many are raped and abused. They are not paid the promised wages, and they are not able to contact their families. The majority of the girls remain in Delhi, but some are thought to have been taken as far away as the UK.39 Some boys are trafficked too.49

In Assam, 9,500 children went missing between 2007 and 2014. Only 3,840 have been recovered so far. Upper Assam has been able to take care of the problem to a large extent, but lower Assam is still cause for concern.49 A police inspector from the district of Lakhimpur is quoted in The Guardian as saying traffickers who offer 1,000 rupees (about $15) will inevitably lure girls (and sometimes boys) away from Assam. He said the trafficking will be defeated only through employment, development, and poverty eradication.39

Although some progress is being made, education has also historically been an area for concern in the state. For example, in 2014, in rural Assam, 17.1% of children between ages 15 and 16 were not enrolled in school. This is slightly higher than the national figure for this age range.51

Periodic floods also impact the state. In fact, heavier than usual monsoon rains in 2015 caused the Brahmaputra and other rivers to overflow their banks, causing severe flooding throughout much of Assam, beginning in early June 2015.52,53 By late September, the state was still experiencing severe flooding, with more than one million people affected, more than 60 dead, and more than 1,600 villages inundated.54 In addition, it was estimated the season’s tea crop would be 25 million kilograms (more than 55 million pounds) less than it would have been because of the floods. McLeod Russel said its crop losses averaged 6% but were as high as 32% on some estates.55 This is the opposite extreme of the previous year when a severe drought crippled the state.56


The BBC’s report is not necessarily a revelation. In January 2014, the Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute published a major study of conditions on tea estates. It highlighted abusive practices that it said were endemic throughout the sector.1,11 Many of these abuses linger from colonial times, and many have actually progressively improved. In addition, the region in general is tumultuous, and not all problems are unique to the tea estates. But more work needs to be done on the estates.

Josef Brinckmann, member of the American Botanical Council’s (ABC’s) Advisory Board and vice president of sustainability at Traditional Medicinals, the largest medicinal tea maker in the United States, said he predicts exploitation will continue until consumers demand that workers have basic rights, a fair wage, and a safe workplace. “This means consumers being conscious enough to support the full costs of ecological, economic, and social sustainability in the tea products they purchase,” he wrote (email, September 28, 2015). In other words, consumers would have to be willing to pay higher prices for assurances that more rigorous standards are being met. Botanicals, including tea leaf, have been historically undervalued in the global marketplace anyway, he said.

“With that said, what the BBC missed were examples of tea plantations in India that, to the contrary, are stellar examples of best practices,” Brinckmann wrote. Since 1998, his company has obtained tea from an estate that implemented rigorous sustainability, safety, and quality management standards decades ago. “The BBC could visit our source of tea leaf and have a completely different and very positive story to tell about how it can and should be done,” he wrote.

Tom Newmark, member of ABC’s Board of Trustees and owner of Finca Luna Nueva Lodge, a sustainable rainforest eco-lodge in Costa Rica, also said he expects solutions to be consumer-driven. “Conscious consumers don’t want to wear blood diamonds. If they knew, would they want to drink a tea suffused with human suffering?” he wrote (email, September 21, 2015). He also said he thinks these problems are the result of the preoccupation with cheap goods and externalized social and ecological costs.

It is important to note how small the BBC’s sample size was. According to Jane Deith, who co-reported with Justin Rowlatt, the BBC visited six estates out of more than 800 in Assam, and ultimately included four in its report.8,48 “We chose them by a mix of prior intelligence, links to well-known British brands of tea, and impulse decisions as we drove past some,” Deith wrote (email, December 2, 2015). It is difficult to determine whether the estates shown are some of the worst in Assam (and in India in general) or whether they are representative of the whole. “It is possible that India may have [both] the best and the worst tea plantations,” Brinckmann wrote.

The estate from which Traditional Medicinals sources has implemented multiple sets of standards: the Demeter Biodynamic Farm Standard and international organic agriculture standards (for ecological sustainability), the Fairtrade Standard for Tea for Hired Labour (for economic and social sustainability), and the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) and Safe Quality Foods (SQF) Program certifications (food safety and quality management standards).

“If the market demanded tea from estates that have implemented all of the aforementioned standards, we would not see such awful exposés as what the BBC recently uncovered,” Brinckmann wrote.

Even though conscientious consumers have been aware of the exploitative conditions in the tea, coffee, and cocoa industries for years, Brinckmann said, he hopes the BBC article will spark consumers who still prefer the lower prices associated with non-organic, non-fair trade teas to increase demand for fair trade teas.

Newmark added: “I feel consumers have a moral obligation to purchase products aligned with their beliefs. Our purchasing decisions shape the world, and we have to ask, ‘What kind of world do we want? Do we want to support companies that use slave labor or destroy the environment?’”


SIDEBAR: The Tea Industry in India

The origins of the tea industry in India can be traced back to colonial times, when, in 1823, the Scotsman Robert Bruce became aware of tea plants, which had been brewed traditionally by members of the Singpho tribe (perhaps dating back to the 12th century), growing wild in Assam.57,58 At the time, the British East India Company, though not nearly as powerful as it had once been, still enjoyed a monopoly on tea imported to England from China. The Company was interested in keeping tea prices artificially high and, despite Bruce’s discovery, saw no reason to spend time and money setting up a new industry in India.58,59 In fact, it blocked progress in that direction whenever it could.58,60

Later, in 1833, largely because of loud demands for the instigation of free trade, demands for tea at reasonable prices, and concerns over the Company’s power to act as both merchant and ruler, Parliament ended the Company’s commercial activities (including its Chinese monopoly), making it solely an administrative body.61 This allowed many British companies to take over the trade with China and forced the Company to consider growing tea in India.58,62 Even tea production not under its strict control was better than no tea at all, the Company concluded.58

Bruce’s brother, Charles, an agent of the East India Company, was tasked with the cultivation of tea, and his work and knowledge of the environment were largely responsible for establishing the industry. Not long after his tea was met with approval in London in 1838, the Assam Company was formed by private growers and eventually pushed the East India Company out of the picture. Other companies followed and, eventually, many British families and individuals began opening estates as well (though in modern times, most estates are owned by Indians).58

Cultivation spread to Darjeeling, the Nilgiri hills in the southern part of India, and elsewhere. The price of tea in Britain had dropped significantly, and tea consumption became even more widespread. It took longer for tea to become popular with the Indian population, but, today, more than one billion Indians drink tea on a regular basis.63,64

India is the second largest producer of tea in the world, behind China.64 Fifteen states throughout the country produce tea (as of 2012), though northern India accounts for the majority of production.65,66 For the 12-month period that ended March 31, 2015, India produced almost 1.2 billion kilograms (more than 2.6 billion pounds) of tea, according to the Tea Board of India, which is part of the country’s Ministry of Commerce.66

Two of the most common types of tea produced in the country are Assam tea (C. sinensis var. assamica) and Darjeeling tea (C. sinensis var. sinensis).3,67 Assam tea is usually prepared as a sultry, malty-tasting black tea and is named after the state where it is produced and where it is native.3 Darjeeling tea is named after the district in the state of West Bengal (the second largest tea-producing state in the country by volume).67,68 It has traditionally been prepared as black tea (meaning leaves are harvested and withered [excess water is removed], then crushed, torn, and curled, and allowed to oxidize before being dried).69 However, Darjeeling green teas (leaves are withered and then heated, either through steaming or pan-firing, thereby preventing oxidation) and Darjeeling oolong teas (leaves are partially oxidized, producing some of the qualities of both black and green teas) are becoming more popular.69-72 Darjeeling’s flavor comes from the plant’s Chinese genetics combined with the Indian terroir.67 The time of harvest also affects the taste of tea.4

Since tea is a staple in the diets of more than one billion people in India, most of the tea produced within the country (more than 80%) is consumed domestically, not exported.64 In fact, even though the country is the second largest producer in the world, it is currently just the fourth largest exporter, according to the India Brand Equity Foundation.73 For the 12-month period that ended March 31, 2015, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Iran, respectively, were India’s top export destinations by volume.74 Furthermore, India is the largest producer and consumer of black tea in the world.75

The industry depends on physical labor. According to 2012 Tea Board data, the industry provides direct employment to more than one million workers, most of whom are women. In addition, more than two million people are supported by ancillary activities associated with the industry. 

In 2012, the Tea Board reported 1,686 tea estates and 157,504 small holdings across India.65 It defined an estate (a big garden) as a tea-growing area larger than 10.12 hectares (0.04 square miles), and a small holding (a small garden) as a tea-growing area smaller than 10.12 hectares.65 Definitions sometimes vary and the terms are not always interchangeable. Some sources use the terms “estate,” “garden,” and “plantation” almost interchangeably, but, by the Tea Board’s definition, a “garden” is not always an “estate.” The Tea Board seems to use “plantation more loosely, using it to refer to the sector. The Plantations Labour Act (PLA) of 1951, however, defines a “plantation” as any area of land intended to be used for growing tea (or coffee, or rubber) which measures five hectares (0.02 square miles) and employs at least 15 people.10

–Connor Yearsley


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