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Juri Baruah
Date of Publish: 2017-09-14

Plucking requires skill but the tea companies do not consider it as a skilled work

 

The Sivasagar district of Assam is predominated by tea gardens which are locally known as bagan. Historically this district has always had tea gardens and tea companies. This author’s interest in Sivasagar district stems from the stark class difference and thereby the relationship of subordination and super ordination that is visually noticeable within the site of the tea garden demarcating the work within this particular site. The Assam tea gardens has usually been presented as an icon of Assam with the ubiquitous photographs of the women tea pluckers deftly putting it in her taukri alongside the vast green landscapes of the tea garden. Such photographs in tourism brochures are emblemic of glorification of women’s labour without an engagement with what lies beneath those images (or even the non-mainstream identity of such a women). The question of gender creates different discourses regarding work in the bagans.

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 reflect the gender and class relation between the industrial and the community in plantation. It indicates that there is a mechanism that recreates and reinforces the gendered division of work in tea plantation. Secondly, these mechanisms create distinct categories of labour and space in the tea gardens.

In the bagans the process of production and capital accumulation strongly depend on female labourers. On one hand, female labourers have to stay longer hour in the field and also have to perform the domestic role which create 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 devalue the work of female labourers. 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.

 

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 labour. The definitions of un/skilled are directly related to plucking of tea leaves. 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 produced the gendered division of labour on the basis of skills. They tried to define some skills as male and some as female, and where women are termed as the less skilled labourers. The nature of employment of labourers as permanent and faltu or temporary in the tea garden reflects how the categories create insecurity for female labourers. A permanent labourer has to follow the criteria of residence inside the tea estate and his/her name should be entered in the estate roll of labourers. For this a labourer has to complete a probationary period of more than fifty days without being absent. Any work within the factory or associated with it are preferred by most of the labourers because it is a kind of permanent work. During the pick time the industry need more temporary labourers for plucking. There are no fix criteria to work as temporary and permanent. The permanent system continues in the form of baldli which means the transfer of one permanent work to the other. These labourers are basically the family members of the permanent labourers. The other section of temporary labourers can work in the garden only for six months.

Tea plantation follows a cultivation scheme which is created by its own seasons. Indeed there is a strong dependence on weather which is also effective for the deployment of various labour tasks. The first flash occurs in March. The permanent field labourers are engaged in the morning shift of work during this season. From June, with the arrival of monsoons the primary work of harvest, plucking reaches its peak of intensity. During the entire season the industry is dependent on female labourers. The second major season of cultivation begins at the end of November which is basically pruning. It is done by both male and female labourers.

Though the field work is considered to comprise heavy manual works but plucking is generally described as a skill that women have achieved through their nimble fingers. Despite, rationalisation, the tea industry is still heavily labour intensive. Plucking is provided by women that 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.

The female labourers have to remain away from their home for at least eight hours per day. Also, being a slow plucker there is a clear disadvantage to a woman. Because in the flushing season she is unable to earn extra money while a slow male field worker suffers no such disadvantage. A female labourer not only spends longer hours at her work than a man does, she has to try and increase her speed to earn better wages. In this way there is a greater pressure on the women to increase the production.

Plantation jobs are inherited from one generation to the other which define that women needed a child who is willing to work and stay in the labour lines. But the mode of plantation production is almost same since the colonial era. This meant that new jobs in plantation are almost rare. The feminisation of work thus indicates that with the changing time though the female labourers have more qualification but they can only work in the field. Because of this reason there are more faltu/temporary workers than the permanent in the bagans. It also pushes the jobless female labourers and their elder daughters to work as a domestic labour in nearby towns. This scenario again creates another feminisation of work in recent time as there is no fix payment for the domestic workers who belonged to tea estates.

The view about the skilled labour is not same as said by the 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 of all kind of tea is not same. For instance, plucking of panitula challan, Orthodox division is not same in case of CTC (Crush, tear, curl) tea. They have to pluck long buds in case of CTC tea which is measured by the labourers by the length of their fingers. In case of Orthodox, they have to pluck only the new green bud which after processing transformed into gold. Experienced plucker knows the difference of plucking in different challan. Above all, the pluckers also have to pluck some old leaves which are not useful for processing but it helps to grow new leaves in a short span of time. For the female labourers, indeed, plucking is a kind of skill though they are not regarded as skilled labourers by the company.

Plucking which is not recognised as a skill is a kind of separation of female and male labourers in terms of field and factory. The culture of separation produce new social rule for the pluckers in the field and the labourers in the factory. The fact of separation also creates a spatial distance between male and female labourers and reflects a gendered difference controlled by the company.

 

Juri Baruah

Juri Baruah is a research scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati. She can be reached at juribaruah33@gmail.com. The views expressed are the author's own )

 

 

 

 

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