Indian workers dying on World Bank-backed tea plantations, say campaigners

Freshly plucked tea leaves at a plantation in India on April 21, 2015.
Freshly plucked tea leaves at a plantation in India on April 21, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

CHENNAI (India) (REUTERS) - At least seven workers have died in the last two years on Indian tea plantations that are partly financed by the World Bank, charities said on Friday (April 27) in an official complaint.

Exploitation and poor working conditions persist after being exposed in a 2016 investigation by the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), an accountability mechanism of the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC), the charities said.

The IFC and Tata Global Beverages in 2009 set up Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL), which is partly owned by workers and was intended to end labour abuses on plantations previously run by Tata in the north-eastern state of Assam.

"Nine years on, we hear of tea workers who have died following work-related accidents, prolonged exposure to hazardous pesticides and lack of adequate medical care," said Wilfred Topno of People's Action for Development.

After the 2016 investigation, the IFC said it was working with APPL to improve conditions. But in their complaint to the CAO, the advocacy groups said not enough has been done.

"The World Bank has utterly failed to exercise its leverage to address the CAO's damning findings," said Anirudha Nagar, of the Accountability Counsel.

In an e-mail, Tata rejected the allegations.

"We would like to clarify that the statement regarding alleged deaths of plantations workers at APPL is incorrect," said a company spokesman.

He added that APPL has been introducing measures to improve worker safety, including cutting back on pesticide use, providing protective gear and upgrading medical facilities.

The IFC also cited improvements, stating that a 2017 independent assessment report showed progress on all fronts, and said it was looking into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of workers.

"Any loss of life is tragic and our sympathies go out to those who lost beloved family members," spokesman Aaron Shane Rosenberg told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an e-mail.

In their complaint, the charities cited a 32-year-old worker who died after severing two fingers in a tea plucking machine and not receiving proper medical care, and a worker with tuberculosis who died while carrying pesticide cans.

"Workers are unable to afford the bare minimum necessities, let alone the cost of medical care, which is often necessary due to sub-standard care provided by APPL hospitals," said Jayshree Satpute of the non-profit Nazdeek.

Tata Global Beverages - which owns Tetley, the second-largest tea brand in the world - has a 41 per cent stake in APPL and the IFC owns 20 per cent, with the remainder held by workers and smaller firms.

The IFC invested US$7.8 million (S$10.3 million) in the US$87 million project, which aimed to create more than 30,000 jobs and promote shareholder ownership by workers.

When they formed APPL in 2009, Tata and the IFC made pledges that included increasing wages, providing adequate housing and healthcare for workers, improving sanitation and lowering exposure to pesticides.