Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Tea Machines

As always, a tradeoff between low-cost labor and quality:
The officers' mess is the local planter's club, founded by the British. Twirling a white, magnificent, military moustache, Deo Raj, the soldierly senior adviser to the company which owns the tea estate said to me: "This regimental system worked for the British and it has worked throughout my 50 years in tea."

The soldiers, the workers, live on the estate in what have always been known as "labour lines". The early British planters could not find workers locally so labour contractors collected not just men, but women and children too, from distant parts of India and sent them on boats up the Brahmaputra river which flows through Assam. The conditions on the long journey were so hazardous that it was not uncommon for half the workers to die before they reached the estates. Many of today's tea plantation workers are descendants of the people who somehow survived that journey.

Deo Raj says workers are now "looked after from womb to tomb". Apart from their wages agreed by the government - and their homes - they get free rations, wood for cooking and electricity. There is a hospital and a school on the estate too. This old-fashioned, paternalistic style of management makes workers very expensive but Deo Raj opposes reducing their number by mechanising the tea plucking.

Watching women nimbly plucking the bright green, new leaves off the top of tea bushes, he explained that machines cannot differentiate between stalks and leaves, and went on to say: "A mixture of leaves and stalks, which is what you will get with a machine, does not make good tea."

But now the Tea Estates that Deo Raj supervises may be forced to mechanise because there is a shortage of people willing to pluck tea and maintain the bushes. He puts this down to the low social status of tea garden work and the survival of another tradition, the designation of the workers as "coolies".

Deo Raj says: "The young people tell us that they may have been born as coolies but they are not prepared to be known as that for the rest of their lives."
Tea-plucking machines in India threaten Assam livelihoods (BBC)

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