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Malnutrition deaths in India's tea gardens highlight worker abuses

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 1 Aug 2014 12:07 GMT
Author: Sujoy Dhar
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This 2004 file photo shows Indian tea pickers arriving for work at a tea estate at Naxalbari in the north eastern state of West Bengal. REUTERS/Kamal Kishore
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KOLKATA, India, Aug 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than 100 tea workers in eastern India have died due to malnutrition-related diseases, activists say, highlighting the persistent poverty and exploitation of tens of thousands of Indians working in the country's tea plantations.

According to a study conducted by the United Tea Workers Front (UTWF) in the Dooars region of West Bengal, the number of deaths of workers aged between 20 and 40 years old this year has shot up compared with one or two in previous years.

"The fact is there are more than 100 deaths this year owing to closure of at least five tea gardens and abject poverty," said UTWF convenor Anuradha Talwar, who headed the study which was ordered by the Supreme Court.

"The wages are abysmal. So when there is a closure the poor workers or their family members have neither the fat on their bodies nor the balance in their banks to survive."

The income of tea pickers in many developing countries are "poverty wages" - not enough to feed and provide medical care for their families - charities say.

Together with poor access to clean water and sanitation, this has made them more susceptible to diseases such tuberculosis, fungal and respiratory infections and diahorrea.

Their children, especially their daughters, are often vulnerable to traffickers who promise them jobs as maids in the city, but in reality exploit them as domestic slaves, exposing them to physical and sexual abuse.

Activists said the tea workers were already living a precarious existence and the closure of the five tea estates in the Himalayan foothills close to the border with Bhutan, has pushed many former workers over the edge.

Around 5,000 tea workers, who were being paid 95 rupees ($1.50) a day, have lost their jobs.

Local officials admit there is a malnutrition crisis due to the low wages and the closure of tea estates in West Bengal which is India's second largest tea producer after Assam.

"The deaths were due to malnutrition over a long period," West Bengal's health minister Chandrima Bhattacharya  told Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that health camps had been set up to treat tea workers.

Officials said they were also providing subsidised food rations and cooking fuel for former workers and were trying to negotiate with tea plantation owners to re-open the estates.

West Bengal has for years faced a crisis in its tea industry with trade unions consistently demanding better wages and tea estate owners refusing. Tea estates have faced closures due various reasons, including labour disputes.

"The reports from the gardens about deaths paint the industry in poor light. These are serious humanitarian issues on which we do not want to comment, but the five tea gardens which are closed are owing to various entrepreneurial and legal disputes and challenges," said Manojit Das Gupta, secretary general of the Indian Tea Association.

(Writing by Nita Bhalla. Editing by Katie Nguyen; katie.nguyen@thomsonreuters.com)KOLKATA, India, Aug 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than 100 tea workers in eastern India have died due to malnutrition-related diseases, activists say, highlighting the persistent poverty and exploitation of tens of thousands of Indians working in the country's tea plantations.

According to a study conducted by the United Tea Workers Front (UTWF) in the Dooars region of West Bengal, the number of deaths of workers aged between 20 and 40 years old this year has shot up compared with one or two in previous years.

"The fact is there are more than 100 deaths this year owing to closure of at least five tea gardens and abject poverty," said UTWF convenor Anuradha Talwar, who headed the study which was ordered by the Supreme Court.

"The wages are abysmal. So when there is a closure the poor workers or their family members have neither the fat on their bodies nor the balance in their banks to survive."

The income of tea pickers in many developing countries are "poverty wages" - not enough to feed and provide medical care for their families - charities say.

Together with poor access to clean water and sanitation, this has made them more susceptible to diseases such tuberculosis, fungal and respiratory infections and diahorrea.

Their children, especially their daughters, are often vulnerable to traffickers who promise them jobs as maids in the city, but in reality exploit them as domestic slaves, exposing them to physical and sexual abuse.

Activists said the tea workers were already living a precarious existence and the closure of the five tea estates in the Himalayan foothills close to the border with Bhutan, has pushed many former workers over the edge.

Around 5,000 tea workers, who were being paid 95 rupees ($1.50) a day, have lost their jobs.

Local officials admit there is a malnutrition crisis due to the low wages and the closure of tea estates in West Bengal which is India's second largest tea producer after Assam.

"The deaths were due to malnutrition over a long period," West Bengal's health minister Chandrima Bhattacharya  told Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that health camps had been set up to treat tea workers.

Officials said they were also providing subsidised food rations and cooking fuel for former workers and were trying to negotiate with tea plantation owners to re-open the estates.

West Bengal has for years faced a crisis in its tea industry with trade unions consistently demanding better wages and tea estate owners refusing. Tea estates have faced closures due various reasons, including labour disputes.

"The reports from the gardens about deaths paint the industry in poor light. These are serious humanitarian issues on which we do not want to comment, but the five tea gardens which are closed are owing to various entrepreneurial and legal disputes and challenges," said Manojit Das Gupta, secretary general of the Indian Tea Association.

(Writing by Nita Bhalla. Editing by Katie Nguyen; katie.nguyen@thomsonreuters.com)

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