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Pulitzer Center Update May 1, 2008

Blood, Sweat and Tea: Death Amongst India's Tea-Workers


The following is an unpublished Op-Ed article written by Sarah Ryan, as part of a Global Gateway: Georgetown project to raise awareness and develop outreach strategies for global issues.

Tea. One of the simplest drinks to make. All you need is a tea bag, hot water and some sugar. It takes a lot more effort to make the tea however, than to enjoy it. An effort which for some people means life or death.

The expanding tea industries in both Kenya and Sri Lanka and the overall decreased demand for tea in our coffee and latte chugging world has caused the tea industry to face a downwards spiral in India. Plantation after plantation is shutting down, especially in the Darjeeling region of West Bengal. Because of this, thousands of tea-workers are left jobless and without alternatives. Although many plantations are still pulling in a substantial profit, the owners are not reinvesting their profits back into their plantations and their workers. Instead, they are investing in other industries and not adjusting their laborers' salaries to the inflating economy.

As a result, the laborers and their families are quickly succumbing to poverty-induced disease and starvation. Since 1998, upwards of 4,000 Indian tea workers and their family members have died due to disease, starvation and poverty. Unable to afford the most basic of foods, families are forced to scrounge the forests for snakes and rats. Malaria, septicemia, TB, cancer and hepatitis are running rampant thanks to their weakened immune systems. Many parents are slowly starving themselves to death, sacrificing their food for their children.

The Indian government is not ignorant of the misery of these workers. But because of their particular tribal affiliations, they are a priority for neither the government nor their unions. Marginalized tea workers are left to fend for themselves without any basic necessities. Electricity has been turned off for years.

Getting clean water to drink, cook with or clean with is not just a matter of turning on a facet, villages must trek an average of 1.5 kilometers just to fetch polluted water. Proper nutrition and hygiene become secondary when food itself is out of reach. The remoteness of the plantations means that the workers have few skills other than those needed to grow tea, making them fully dependent upon the plantations for their entire livelihood and leaving them abandoned when those very plantations close down.

There is nothing being done by this booming country to ease the suffering of their own people. Any aid being given to them is negligible to nonexistent. Ironically, India is quickly gaining ground as one of the most influential superpowers in our globalized economy. Instead of pouring all of its resources into foreign governments, India should look inward to mend its own problems. While providing aid to Burma and China after their natural disasters is indeed commendable, it does not justify their domestic neglect. A country should not forget its own people, especially during times of desperate need.

More money needs to be spent on rebuilding the tea industry. India is now dealing with a more competitive tea market and therefore must adjust accordingly. Furthermore, tea should not and cannot be so heavily depended upon. The region needs to expand and diversify its crops to accommodate for the ever changing economy. The tea-workers likewise must expand their skills so are not completely dependent upon the tea plantations. There are numerous examples right here in America of this very same situation occurring. Steel mills close, factories outsource to Asia, businesses move their offices to less expensive locales. Each time, hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of workers are left jobless and without options. Precautionary steps must be taken to prevent this from swallowing the future of the tea-workers in India.

So, the next time you are taking a sip of your Darjeeling black tea, think of how much each tea leaf affects the lives of the thousands of tea workers in India. For while we Americans may associate tea with rainy days, grandmothers, Brits, finger sandwiches and the Boston Tea Party, in reality, tea has much more significance and much more life-or-death implications for those cultivating it than we might ever imagine. Blood, sweat and tea should not be associated with each other.


teal halftone illustration of a construction worker holding a helmet under their arm


Labor Rights

Labor Rights