An internal World Bank investigation released on Monday morning has found evidence of serious labour rights abuses on tea plantations it finances in Assam. The report also implicates the Tata Group whose wholly-owned subsidiary Tata Global Beverages owns just under 50 per cent of the company that owns the plantations.
India is the world's second largest producer of tea and Assam produces half of India's tea. The tea sector is India's largest private sector employer, employing over one million people in Assam alone. Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL) is the second largest producer and supplier of tea in India and has 30,000 permanent workers in 25 plantations in Assam and West Bengal.
In the early 2000s, the industry was in crisis with several estates shutting down. After Tata Global Beverages (TGB) turned to the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the Bank's private sector investment arm, for help, a new company - APPL - was set up in 2006 to acquire and run 24 plantations owned by TGB; the IFC invested $7.8 million and it's stake is 19.9 per cent, while TGB owns 49.6 per cent. The management and workers would be offered the opportunity to buy shares in the new company, a "worker-shareholder model" that the IFC wanted to support.
In 2009 a pregnant tea plantation worker at an APPL estate in West Bengal collapsed, allegedly after making a request for maternity leave at the health clinic, leading to protests and a lockout at the estate.
Workers' representatives allege that tea workers, the majority of whom are adivasi and descendants of colonial-era plantation labour, have been made to work in near-bonded conditions and without the protections of many labour laws. In 2009 a pregnant tea plantation worker at an APPL estate in West Bengal collapsed, allegedly after making a request for maternity leave at the health clinic, leading to protests and a lockout at the estate. In 2010, a 25-year old worker collapsed and died at work allegedly due to exposure to pesticides; in the protests that followed, two protesters were shot dead.
In February 2013, three local NGOs filed a complaint with the World Bank Group's Compliance Advisor/ Ombudsman (CAO), the internal arm that holds the Bank accountable to its own policies. The CAO's report finds that the IFC did not adequately supervise the APPL's compliance with its performance standards and did not make sure that the root causes of the alleged labour violations were being addressed, especially until the 2013 complaint.
Most fundamentally, the CAO found that it isn't clear that these jobs offer a way out of poverty or are even adequate to for the workers to be healthy and adequately nourished.
The investigation found that the Bank had failed "to respond systematically to issues regarding housing and living conditions" or to correct serious lapses in the use of pesticides, "with the result that workers have been exposed to extremely hazardous chemicals." Workers' rights to unionise and push their grievances were not met, enough steps to ensure child labour was not being used were not taken, and workers' complaints that they were being pushed into the equity scheme were not addressed. Most fundamentally, the CAO found that it isn't clear that these jobs offer a way out of poverty or are even adequate to for the workers to be healthy and adequately nourished.
While the IFC has accepted some of the CAO's findings, it has disputed several of the findings on human rights abuses and non-compliance with Indian law citing a third-party audit it had commissioned. "IFC, TGBL, and APPL are not satisfied with the status quo nor ongoing non-compliances, and have agreed collectively to work urgently in the next two years, in consultation with workers, to accelerate priority actions," the IFC has conceded. "This priority action plan does not include the crucial issues of wage, freedom of association, and education. Addressing these issues cannot be delayed," said Topno.
"As a concerned shareholder TGB continues to support the management of APPL towards improving the living and working conditions of workers. Under the proposed Draft Action Plan, which has been presented to the APPL board for review and approval, TGB will work alongwith IFC to engage a third party to undertake an annual audit and worker perception survey and other improvement measures," TGB said in a statement.
In a statement, APPL noted that in 2014, TGB commissioned an independent assessment into living and working conditions at APPL tea estates following which it began a project to improve the living and working conditions of plantation workers, an aim it remains committed to.