How Women Tea Pluckers In Assam Are Being Exploited By Being Tagged ‘Unskilled’

The Sivasagar district of Assam is dominated by tea gardens, which are locally known as bagans. Historically, this district has always had tea gardens and tea garden companies. My interest in Sivasagar district stems from the stark class difference and thereby the relationship of subordination and superiority that is visibly noticeable within the borders of the tea garden. I have always been intrigued by the distinctions of ‘race’ that I saw while growing up. These distinctions also seem to be markers for ‘racialised’ labour within the tea gardens. The site of the tea garden itself is a distinct space, seemingly stuck in time and thereby seen as a remnant of a colonial past. Having seen the tea garden in close proximity, it continues to present to me an interesting site of study.

The Assam tea gardens have usually been presented as an icon of Assam with the ubiquitous photographs of the woman tea plucker deftly putting the leaves in her taukri amidst the vast green landscape of the tea garden. Such photographs in tourism brochures are emblematic of the glorification of women’s labour without an engagement with what lies beneath those images (or even the non-mainstream identity of such women). The question of gender (along with the various discussions on public/private, nature/culture, and production/reproduction) creates different discourses regarding work in the bagans.

Source: Photo gallery, Tourism Department of Assam

My interest in women’s work within the site of the tea garden brought me back to the tea gardens as a researcher. In the bagans the process of production and capital accumulation strongly depends on female labourers. On one hand, female labourers have to stay longer hours in the field and also have to perform their domestic roles, which creates a double burden of work for them. On the other hand, by creating divisions between ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ work between field and factory, the management devalues the work of female labourers.

The intersection of the three domains of class, race and gender is where my queries are based. The task is to map the ways which reconcile the category of gender within regionally diverse patriarchal relations cross-hatched by class/racial inequalities. Labour, in this case, is never neutral but constituted historically through social and political categories like race and gender. While race is not a tenable category and yet racism exists, in India there is a way in which racism seems analogous to practices of casteism. In my childhood, I have personally encountered practices similar to the ‘two glass system’ wherein utensils in which the tea garden workers were served were kept separate from other utensils in the house. The temporary tea garden labourers usually work in the nearby villages during the offseason and such practices seem to be an occurrence when the labourers are working in homes as daily wage workers.

In most parts of the world, plantation labour is one of the lowest paid work, in which women are highly marginalised. The dependency on female labourers also reflects the gender and class relation between the industry and the community in a plantation. It indicates that there is a mechanism that recreates and reinforces the gendered division of work in a tea plantation. Secondly, these mechanisms create distinct categories of labour and space in the tea gardens.

Colonialism, in the 19th century in Assam, created spaces where plantations played a major role in changing power relations. The plantation economy acts as a political power through which private spaces are rendered to the public. For instance, the estate is a public space for the labourers but is private property for the management, where unauthorised entry is prohibited. The class and racial border creates these spaces in both the field and the factory. Class is here a factor regarding the labourers and the management, while race is dominated by the idea of purity and impurity. Practically a plantation is a form of ‘industry’ with all these layers of class, race, gender, and power.

There are contradictory views about skilled and unskilled labour given by the management and pluckers. For the management, the term skilled is quite masculine and so they do not regard the pluckers as skilled labourers. Tea plant is pruned and groomed into a flat-top bush so that workers can pluck the youngest shoots, i.e. two leaves and a bud, locally known as Aahoi khila. In Assam, workers generally do not use machines for plucking of tea. The plantation management produces the gendered division of labour on the basis of skills. They try to define some skills as male and some as female, where women are termed as the less skilled labourers.

During lunch, right after the siren. Photo by author.

The nature of employment of labourers as either permanent or faltu (temporary/useless) in the tea gardens reflects how the categories create insecurity for female labourers. A permanent labourer has to follow the criteria of residence inside the tea estate and their name is entered in the estate roll of labourers. For this, a labourer has to complete a probationary period of more than 50 days without being absent. Any work within the factory or associated with it is preferred by most of the labourers because it is a kind of permanent work. During picking time, the industry needs more temporary labourers for plucking. There are no fixed criteria to work as temporary or permanent. The permanent system continues in the form of baldli which means the transfer of permanent work from one labourer to another. These labourers are basically the family members of the permanent labourers. Temporary labourers, meanwhile, can work in a garden only for six months.

Though the field work is considered to comprise of heavy manual work, plucking is generally described as a skill that women have acquired through their nimble fingers. Despite this rationalisation, the tea industry is still heavily labour intensive. Plucking is provided by women who are crucial for producing high-quality tea. Labourers are not given any special benefits as a reward for their special contribution to the tea industry.

Women measuring the weight of tea leaves at Mackeypor Tea Estate, Sivasagar. Photo by author.
Skilled labour is not viewed similarly by field and factory labourers. According to the field labourers, plucking is a kind of skill. They have to learn it through a long process. Interestingly, plucking does not work the same for all kinds of tea. For instance, the plucking of panitula challan (orthodox) tea is not the same as that of CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl) tea. They have to pluck long buds in case of CTC tea, which are measured by the labourers by the length of their fingers. In the case of orthodox, they have to pluck only the new green buds which, after processing, transform into gold. Experienced pluckers know these differences of plucking. Above all, the pluckers also have to pluck some old leaves which are not useful for processing, but help to grow new leaves in a short span of time. For the female labourers, plucking is indeed a kind of skill, though they are not regarded as skilled labourers by the company.

Purnima has worked in a bagan in Sivasagar as a plucker since the hazira (daily salary) was ₹126. She says, “Even the managers learn to pluck from us, and then they order us to pluck! Sometimes we feel that ₹126 (now it is ₹137) hazira is very little compensation for our hard work. We know that the tea which we pluck is sold at an expensive rate outside the garden. But we as labourers receive very little.”