Worker on APPL tea plantation in Assam, India

© 2015 Komala Ramachandra
The World Bank should fulfill its commitment to protect workers through its investment in tea plantations in Assam, India, six Indian and international nongovernmental organizations said today. In November 2016, the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), the accountability office of the World Bank Group’s private sector lending arm, released an investigation report that found low wages, abysmal sanitation, lack of pesticide safety equipment, and inadequate housing on India’s tea plantations – but the bank has since done little to address the problems.

On November 6, 2017, the organizations delivered a petition with more than 67,000 signatures collected by the Care2 social networking website to the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the bank’s private sector arm. The petition calls on the IFC to urgently remedy the situation.

“The World Bank Group is not honoring its commitment to improve the lives of tea workers in Assam,” said Anirudha Nagar, South Asia director at Accountability Counsel, which supports communities harmed by internationally financed projects. “The bank should urgently disclose the audits it is relying on, address the findings of its independent accountability office, and make good on its promise to ensure workers are consulted in a process moderated by an independent third party.”

In 2009, the IFC invested in the tea producer Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL) with the goal of creating a sustainable worker shareholder program. With more than 155,000 people living on APPL plantations, including 30,000 tea workers, the investment has the potential to achieve a significant development impact. However, the IFC failed to live up to its own goals, including to “support jobs that ‘protect and promote the health’ of workers, and thus provide a way out of poverty,” as the CAO found in its November 2016 report.

“Many workers are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation from plantation management,” said Wilfred Topno, secretary at Peoples Action for Development. “The 67,000 signatures show public support for their suffering, amplify their voices so the bank will hear them, and shine a light on the problem so employers cannot retaliate in secret.”

The IFC disagreed with several of the CAO’s findings, relying on an audit of the plantations carried out by a third-party organization in 2014, which has never been made public. The IFC then proposed a “draft action plan,” which addresses a limited set of findings it agrees with, and made a commitment to select an “independent third party” to consult with workers on its plan. A year has passed, and there is still no indication a third party has been hired for the consultation process.

In 2017, the same third-party organization that conducted the 2014 audit was commissioned to do another audit of two APPL plantations. Yet again, the process was shrouded in secrecy and the report has not been made public.

“The IFC still invests in tea but has done little to stop the labor and human rights abuses on APPL’s plantations more than a year after the investigation,” said Komala Ramachandra, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The IFC should consult with workers and promptly create a meaningful response and action plan.”

In August, advocates for the workers created Project AccountabiliTEA, documenting what they found were the bank’s meager efforts to alleviate the inhumane living and working conditions and its failure to fulfill even the limited commitments it made last year.

“Workers and their dependents deserve what they were promised and what is legally required,” said Jayshree Satpute, co-founder of Nazdeek, which works to bring access to justice closer to marginalized communities in India. “Having workers share in the benefits of the plantation is a good idea, but the way the worker shareholder program was implemented was clearly a failure. The IFC has the chance to make it right and we have tens of thousands of people who agree.”

The petition calls on the IFC to act on the ongoing mistreatment of the tea workers, consult with workers to improve their working and housing conditions, increase wages, and give workers a voice in the management of plantations.

“As an organization that supports tea workers, we are committed to seeking justice for the long term,” said Stephen Ekka, Director at PAJHRA, which advocates for the rights of Assam’s Adivasi population. “To know that we have the support of 67,000 people is incredible and bolsters our resolve to keep going.”

“Employment is a two-way street and should be mutually beneficial for both workers and employers,” said Julie Mastrine, spokesperson for Care2. “Those who have signed the Care2 petition understand this and are urgently demanding the IFC to do more to enter into conversation with tea workers and put pressure on their employer to improve working conditions. No one should suffer at their place of employment.”