Thousands of girls are trafficked across India and sold in the cities as domestic servants or end up in prostitution rackets. Experts believe that the slave trade is being fueled by dire conditions on tea plantations.
An average tea-plucker on a tea estate in India's northeastern state of Assam works 8 hours a day and needs to turn in an average of 24 kilograms of tea leaves over the course of 12 days. For this, the picker is paid 94 Indian rupees (INR) a day which is equivalent to one euro and 10 cents. For every extra kilo of leaves turned in, the picker gets a bonus of 50 paise a day (half a rupee, or 0.011 cents), M.K.Trivedi, plantation supervisor at the Towkok Tea Estate in Assam, told Deutsche Welle.
A 250-gram (8.6 ounce) Assam tea bag pack costs an average of 8 euros on store shelves.
Trivedi said that the tea estate, which employs around 1,700 pluckers, has a free dispensary at the workers' disposal. The tea estate also bears any medical expenses in case one of the workers has a serious medical problem and needs to travel to a specialized hospital. The next hospital in the vicinity is 2 hours away.
Trivedi told DW that each picker also gets rations twice a month: three and half kilograms of rice and three and half kilograms of wheat flour and for a tea plucker's family, seven kilograms of rice and seven kilograms of wheat per month.
Trivedi insists that the wages and the compensation comply with the minimum wages stipulated in an agreement with trade unions.
“A national wage regulation is very difficult to implement for all sectors and all categories of work. The wages differ from region to region and in the tea plantations, the wages also depend on the quality of tea growing in the gardens. The seasons also play an important role, as there is a lot more work from June to September during the main plucking season," Trivedi said.
The legal minimum wage in Assam is 169 rupees, but the workers are paid significantly less.
India is the world's largest exporter of tea. According to statistics published by the India Tea Association, Germany alone imported nearly 5.2 million kilograms of tea from India in 2013. Overall, Germany is the 5th largest importer of tea from India.
Deutsche Welle asked Meßmer, Germany's largest tea brand that imports tea from India, if they were aware of the working conditions and wages on their supplier’s tea estates.
The Ostfriesische Tee Gesellschaft, Laurens Spethmann GmbH & Co. KG, which owns the brand Meßmer told DW that the company had a strict policy when it came to choosing suppliers. "We are members of the Ethical Tea Partnership and work together to ensure that our suppliers adhere to a code of conduct with guidelines set by the International Labor Organization."
The company, however, could not give DW further information on the specifics.
Hub for traffickers
Kailash Satyarthi, head of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBP), a child protection organization in India, explained that the dire working conditions and low wages on tea plantations have made them a hub for traffickers. "Thousands of girls and children are trafficked from the tea growing states, such as Assam and West Bengal, every year. They end up in cities as domestic servants, in prostitution rackets, or are shipped abroad making them untraceable."
Satyarthi's NGO featured in a recent investigation by the British newspaper The Guardian where he led a search for a girl who had been trafficked to Delhi from the Nahorani tea estate in Assam as a domestic servant. The estate is owned by Tata Global Beverages, part of an Indian conglomerate, which also owns the British tea brand, Tetley. The report highlighted the plight of the workers on the estate, causing an outrage in the media. Tata Global Beverages has filed a legal complaint against both The Guardian and The Observer, denying the allegations.
Activists insist that the root cause of the trafficking problem lies in the tea plantations where workers are not paid enough to meet their basic needs, making them vulnerable for ‘slave trade’.
Satyarthi is now petitioning the World Bank to thoroughly investigate their end of the supply chain to ensure that the tea pluckers do not just have minimum wages but also a minimum living wage, along with improved safety and working conditions.