Royal Commission on Labour in India: Report(1929)||
The Assam tea planters occupy a peculiar position in India. They have in the beginning, like almost all Indian industries, to induce the agriculturist, to leave his home and migrate long distances in order to furnish themselves with a labour force sufficient for their purpose.
There are, however, two striking differences between the tea trade and other industries in India.* First, tea-planting is an agricultural and not an industrial occupation the worker and his family live in the country and frequently settle on their own land. We have been informed that 600, 000 ex-garden workers are settled on Government land in Assam occupying an area of 150, 000 acres. Secondly, recruiting for the tea trade is not free as in other industries, but is hedged round with restrictions. In the provinces from which a greater portion of the tea planter's labour is drawn he is not allowed to use propaganda in order to induce the worker to migrate to Assam on the other hand there as nothing to stop the counter-propaganda in those same districts which is vigorously carried on by the Zamindars interested in keeping labour immobile and preventing migration.
The result of this position is somewhat curious. Stories of hardships, disease and restriction of movement which may have been true of Assam in the distant past still persist in the recruiting districts, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that such a state of affairs is now exceptional. The Report states, " We met no one familiar with conditions both in Assam and in the recruiting areas who wished to discourage
FN 1 Page 48.
migration. It is to be feared that some of the opponents of emigration into Assam were interested in preventing labour from strengthening its position in the recruiting areas. Having endeavoured to examine the question from both ends, the source of the labour and its destination, we are satisfied that the labourers generally improve their condition by emigration ".l
The Commission could hardly come to any other conclusion in face of the evidence referred to on page 362 showing how the conditions in parts of Bihar and Madras, for example, from which recruits are drawn are not far removed from slavery.
With regard to the health of the workers in Assam, the Report states that the general standard of the physique of plantation labourers " is certainly higher than that of the population of the recruiting areas ".2 That there are still unhealthy gardens no one will deny. The tea industry has its black sheep like any other, but during the last five years serious efforts have been made to reduce the incidence of malaria in the gardens by the Indian Tea Association which is said to comprise 90 per cent of the plantations. Where the incidence of malaria is low there is usually no difficulty with regard to recruiting. " In one garden which we visited, where the incidence was very low, it had been unnecessary to do any active recruitment for over twenty years." 3 The Report of the Commission continues, " We believe that the effective control of malaria would bring about a radical transformation in the health conditions of the plantation areas. One result would be to increase the effectiveness and contentment of the existing labour force. In addition less difficulty would be experienced in reconciling labour recruits to the new conditions of life".3
Medical opinion as to the best method of abolishing malaria has by no means been unanimous in the past and the persistence of this disease must partly be ascribed to unsuccessful experimentation in this direction. That the planters are taking practical steps to combat malaria is shown by the evidence given before the Commission. Moreover the Indian Tea Association "has made generous grants to the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicines to assist its researches an malaria and hookworm and has also helped to finance the successful campaign against kala-azar ".4
The above quotations must convince even the most sceptical that the emigrant to Assam enjoys a change for the better. That there is still a shortage of labour in the tea industry as due, in my opinion, first to the expansion of the industry by 300 per cent during the last forty years, secondly to the counter-propaganda referred to above, which still exists in recruiting areas, and lastly to the fact that many of those who serve the tea industry are able to leave it for a more independent existence1
FN 1 Page 362.
FN 2 Page 405.
FN 3 Page 406. 4 Page 407.
The income of the worker on the tea gardens, as is usual in agricultural occupations, is derived partly from wages and partly from concessions in kind. In addition to cash earnings he receives free housing, free fuel, free medical attendance, loans free of interest and free grazing. Frequently, but not always, he receives an allotment of land on which he can work during his spare time. He is also generally free from anxiety of unemployment in the future. The local Government state that " it must be remembered that in Assam the demand exceeds the supply and when such a condition exists wages will be comparatively high ". Whatever may have been the conditions in the past in this respect, it is admitted that since 1921-22 the consistent policy of the industry has been to assist the garden worker to increase his earnings1
In spite of the situation outlined above, my colleagues advocate the institution of wage regulation in the tea industry in Assam. I do not propose here to discuss in detail the recommendations of the International Labour Office, which do not apply to agriculture, beyond stating they are subject to two basic conditions, (1) that no arrangement exists for the regulation of wages by collective agreement, and (2) that wages are exceptionally low. As to whether wage regulation is desirable or practicable for agriculture in India I have not sufficient knowledge to give an opinion, but it appears to me only right and logical that, if wages are to be regulated in agriculture, there should be in the first place a definite ad hoc enquiry on the subject; and it is wrong and unjust in my view to treat a particular industry as a playground for experimental reform unless conditions in that industry are so shocking that their remedy brooks no delay.
Justification for the exceptional treatment of the tea industry is sought for by my colleagues in the peculiar conditions existing in Assam. Their arguments may be summed up under three heads:—
First, the inequality of the bargaining power of the employer and employed as to the wage agreement. This is attributed to the power of the Indian Tea Association, which is said to comprise 90 percent of the planters.
Secondly, the analogy drawn "from the minimum wage system which operates successfully in Ceylon at the present time.
Thirdly, the suspicion still prevalent in the recruiting areas with regard to labour conditions in Assam which the Report maintains would be considerably reduced by the establishment of Minimum Wage Boards.
1. As regards the first point, I would challenge any unbiassed observer to say that even partial equality of bargaining power is common in India. This inequality is a familiar feature throughout Indian industry and is only to be expected in a country where labour is illiterate and has not yet achieved the standard of organisation prevalent in the West. Wages all over India are noted for lack of standardisation and our experience has shown that even factories in the same district pay different
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rates for the same work. The tea industry is in a more fortunate position than most other Indian industries in that to a considerable extent there is "standardisation in the matter of wages, as a result of combination amongst employers ".1
2. The analogy drawn from conditions in Ceylon will not to my mind bear investigation. The Ceylon tea industry draw their labour from India, under a different Government, and the two countries have come to an agreement with regard to a minimum wage in order that the Government of India may be assured as to the conditions of her emigrants abroad The conditions are totally different in Assam. This province and the areas from which the Assam tea industry draws its labour force are both under the Central Government of India, and labour should be allowed to flow to and from Assam in the same manner as in other provinces and industries.
3. In my view recruiting difficulties will solve themselves in the near future (a) by the improvement of health conditions in the unhealthy areas, (6) by the power to use honest propaganda, and (c) by the improbability that the expansion of the industry at the previous rate will continue. At the present time economic conditions appear to be such as to make the employment of existing labour rather than the attraction of new workers the problem of the moment.
It is held, however, by some that the Indian Tea Association need not fear the institution of these Boards since under present conditions they will do no more than bring up the laggards of the industry to the general level of the majority. If this is the view of the Indian Tea Association and they desire the statutory institution of these Boards so as to bring into line the ten per cent of the planters who are not in their Association, any objections I may have raised fall to the ground. I am, however, definitely opposed in principle to the establishment of Minimum Wage Boards in any industry except at the request and desire of the majority of the industry even when the principle of their application has been adopted for all India, without a preliminary enquiry on the lines recommended in our Report, namely:—
" So far as wage rates are concerned, it is desirable to have as full information as possible regarding both the methods of remuneration and the actual rates, including the variation in the latter from centre to centre and from establishment to establishment. When this information as available, it should be possible to say, not merely whether the fixing of minimum wages is desirable, but also whether it as practicable. ...".2
In any case the type of Minimum Wage Board recommended by the International Labour Office, that is to say equal representation of employers and employed with an independent chairman, could not be applied to Assam. Labour in Assam is completely illiterate and totally untrained in negotiation. The proposal of the Commission to substitute intelligent and sympathetic outsiders to take the place of the labour representatives nullifies the system visualised by the International Labour Office whereby the bargaining parties in a trade settle their own affairs under an indepen-
FN 1 Page 385.
FN 2 Page 213.
dent chairman. The intervention of any foreign element immediately alters the whole complexion of such Boards.
If the Assam tea industry could have been classed as a " sweated " industry, this exceptional treatment might have been justifiable:
but as facts are it seems to me that the proposed imposition of Minimum Wage Boards would be an act of injustice to a trade in which the worker, according to the local Government, " can already earn enough to keep him in health and reasonable comfort."