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Oxfam India is a registered not-for-profit organisation under Section 8 of the Indian Companies Act, 2013. Oxfam India’s mission is to work towards reducing inequality and injustice in India by working with alliances of poor and marginalized people, especially women, so that they are able to realize their rights, influence decision-making processes and transform power structures. In this journey, Oxfam India will also engage with the public to promote active citizenship and with the private sector to encourage responsible business.

In the last 10 years Oxfam India has impacted millions of lives through its programmes. You can read more about Oxfam India and our work over the last 10 years in our recently published book Beyond Charity (Savvy Soumya Misra). The book captures the journey of Oxfam India through the different themes that it works on such as humanitarian, conflict, education, health, and gender. It also has stories of community building, cooperatives, farmer producer companies, and networks and alliances.

Oxfam India is affiliated to Oxfam International confederation of 19 Oxfams working globally.

The food industry generates billions of dollars in profits every year. At the top, big supermarkets and other corporate giants dominate food markets, allowing them to squeeze ever more value from supply chains that span the globe, while at the bottom, the bargaining power of small-scale farmers and workers such as those in Assam has been steadily eroded.

Globally Oxfam is working against the abuse of workers which is rife in the food industry. As part of the Behind the Barcode campaign, Oxfam visited farms and plantations that supply tea, fruit and vegetables to international supermarkets and retailers. Oxfam selected the location for this research with the help of national partners and allies who work on issues relating to workers’ rights. Assam tea is one of the most popular and widely consumed beverage in the world. Six international supermarkets confirmed they source Assam tea from companies whose suppliers appear in the list of the 50 estates visited by Oxfam’s researchers. Our research has shown that workers (510 workers were interviewed) in 50 tea estates clock long hours of back breaking work, are paid much below the living wages, and live in deplorable conditions.

International supermarkets and brands source their tea from Assam but relentlessly drive to cut costs and maximize profits. This is fueling poverty and abuse. While some supermarkets are making changes, the progress is patchy and slow, and no brands are doing enough.

There is an opportunity to change this. In India, the upcoming Occupational Health and Safety bill can address some of the hurdles and ensure decent working and living conditions apart from fair wages. Globally, supermarkets, retailers and brands have a responsibility to change their own practices and share just 2% additional value of the price of tea with millions of workers in the sector.

India is facing extreme economic inequality. Extreme inequality is widely acknowledged as a global risk for countries in general but particularly for the economy. The tea workers in Assam are among the most marginalised; they were Adivasis mostly from the Chhota Nagpur Plateau who were brought in by the British to work in the tea plantations in the 19th century. Tea workers have lived on the plantation for generations but their living conditions and access to basic amenities is deplorable or missing.

Assam tea sector is India’s largest formal private sector employer employing around 1.2 million permanent workers. There have been several reports from national media, trade unions, government, World Bank, international media and academia highlighting the urgency of the issues. Oxfam India believes that addressing these issues is important to sustain the Assam tea industry.

The key issues highlighted in Oxfam’s report as well as many previous reports are – poverty wages, injustice for women and lack of basic healthcare, education, housing, food and sanitation entitlements.

Some of the key findings of the research are:

  • Half of households interviewed receive government ‘below poverty line’ ration cards. A third experience recurrent debt. Lack of promotion opportunities means that some workers have remained on the same pay grade for 15–20 years.
  • Indian tea estates are legally obliged under the Plantation Labour Act to provide decent working conditions, housing, healthcare and education. The condition of housing and sanitation is very poor with dilapidated or non-existent facilities. Around 45% of workers interviewed reported suffering from water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, typhoid and jaundice, among others.
  • It is predominantly women who carry out the labour-intensive job of harvesting tea and end up being concentrated in these low-paid jobs. Women tea workers including unpaid domestic work, undertake up to 13 hours of physical labour per day after just six hours’ rest. Despite their large numbers, they remain under-represented in trade unions.
  • Some of key issues that women tea workers face include inaccessible toilets, inadequate maternal and childcare facilities, inadequate maternity benefits and domestic violence.
  • A 200 gm packet of branded Assam tea is sold in India for Rs. 68. Of this, less than Rs. 5 is left for workers (using plucking costs as a proxy indicator) while tea brands and supermarkets retain around Rs. 40

Assam tea is particularly valued by consumers for its rich, robust and aromatic flavour. Like champagne, Assam tea is named for the region where it is grown: the lush, humid plains of the Brahmaputra River valley in North-East India. Often, supermarkets sell it at premium prices, either as pure Assam tea or as part of popular blends such as ‘English Breakfast’ tea.

Building on the findings of a series of reports by local non-government organizations and international media outlets, new research commissioned by Oxfam and undertaken by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) on 50 tea estates shows the shocking scale and depth of human suffering of the women and men that produce our tea.

Assam tea sector is India’s largest formal private sector employer. There have been several reports from national media, trade unions, government, World Bank, international media and academia highlighting the urgency of the issues. Oxfam India believes that addressing these issues is important to sustain the Assam tea industry.

All of the issues highlighted come under the scope of the Indian Constitution and laws such – Plantation Labour Act, Minimum Wage Act and Right to Education. This also comes under the scope of India’s National Guidelines for Responsible Business Conduct.

The research team at TISS followed a 6-stage sampling method to collect data from respondents. Fifty tea estates, located across nine major tea-producing districts of Assam, have been selected. The process and rationale for selecting estates and districts under various stages have been explained in the TISS research report here.

Researchers interviewed 510 workers on 50 Assam tea estates that supply to tea brands and supermarkets internationally, revealing appalling working and living conditions that constitute a failure to respect, protect and fulfil international human and labour rights. The issues found through the research sample size corroborate with existing literature review.

Oxfam is targeting international supermarkets in countries like UK, US, Germany and Netherlands asking them to improve conditions of workers in food supply chains in Brazil and India from where they source. Oxfam is targeting the systemic issue of abuse of workers in the Assam tea sector.

Oxfam’s 2018 Ripe for Change report sets out a body of evidence linking supermarket policies and practices to the poverty pay and harsh conditions on farms and plantations. Supermarkets and brands take a very large portion of the final tea price leaving very little for the plantations and workers. Oxfam is asking supermarkets to pay a fair share of price to the tea plantations so as to enable living wages for workers.

Action by governments and by farms and suppliers is very important but we are focusing on retailers because of the huge power they have in the food sector and because we know they do respond to the concerns of their shoppers. A recent survey of shoppers in 23 countries found that three quarters of respondents feel it is important to buy ‘ethical food’ produced in socially and environmentally responsible ways.

Oxfam India is targeting Indian consumers to create awareness among them about ethical and responsible consumption. In India, Oxfam is not targeting any company or institution. Rather, Oxfam is asking all stakeholders – supermarkets, brands, packers, government, trade unions, civil society and certification agencies to come together and address the problems.

During the course of research and prior to publishing Oxfam has given an opportunity to comment to each and every company or institution mentioned in the report.

Oxfam is not calling for a boycott. We want shoppers to use their influence as customers to call on their supermarkets to help end the suffering behind their food.

In India our campaign messaging is specifically asking to ‘continue buying and enjoying’ more Assam tea and take action to support workers. Our call to action for Indian consumers is to take an ethical consumption survey, online petition and give a missed call to show support to the campaign.

Oxfam is particularly concerned about the condition of Assam tea industry because it employs around 1.2 million permanent workers, thereby being the largest employer in the formal private sector in India. Oxfam believes that unless the tea industry is thriving the workers will continue to face these challenges.

The relentless squeeze by supermarkets and brands on the share of the end consumer price for tea makes poverty and hardship for workers in Assam more likely. But, combined with rising costs and the impacts of the climate crisis, it is also contributing to a severe economic crisis for the entire Indian tea industry – with several tea estates in West Bengal and Assam either closing or facing the threat of closure.

Oxfam is calling on those with a stake in the industry not to abandon the millions of workers who are dependent on it. Tea estate closures in West Bengal have been associated with extreme suffering and even starvation, and this should be avoided in Assam at all costs

Supermarkets and brands take a large portion of the price. Oxfam feels that unless urgent and coordinated actions are taken by all key stakeholders the situation can worsen leading millions of workers in further poverty and deprivation.

This campaign and Oxfam India’s work on private sector engagement takes a solution-oriented approach. We engage with Indian companies on issues of transparency especially responsible supply chains. We engage with the government in helping shape India’s responsible business policies such as the National Guidelines on Responsible Business Conduct. We also engage with investors in facilitating dialogue on sustainable and responsible investing in India.

Our report goes beyond the problem analysis of other studies and looks at the context in India, and at the entire global value chain for Assam tea. Our report, using all that analysis to engage stakeholders with the influence to bring about positive change in the context of this campaign.

Our report clearly highlights recommendations to address the issues categorised for supermarkets, brands, tea estates and government. In India, some of the key recommendations include – enable living wages to be paid, enable women workers to b empowered, be transparent on sourcing and implement Plantation Labour Act requirements and eventually the Occupational Health and Safety Bill. By just 2% additional value of the price of tea by tea brands, fair living wages can be provided to millions of workers in the sector.

Globally, Oxfam is calling on the newly elected European Parliament and the incoming European Commission to introduce mandatory human rights due diligence, ensuring:

  • That companies are required to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for negative impacts of their business on the rights of people in their supply chain.
  • That this requirement applies throughout a companies’ global supply chain.
  • That victims of exploitation and abuse have the right and opportunity to seek redress when companies have failed their duty to exercise due diligence.

Supermarkets are also under increasing pressure from shoppers and investors to act. 50 investors with assets worth approximately $3.1 trillion released a statement today calling on supermarkets to disclose from where they source their products and to tackle human rights abuse in their supply chains.