Addressing The Human Cost of Assam Tea


People have been enjoying the refreshing, health-giving qualities of tea for over four thousand years. Two billion cups of tea are consumed globally every day[1]. In India, over 850 million people and nine out of every ten households consume tea daily.[2] In markets such as the UK, consumers drink some 165 million cups of tea a day – enough to fill 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.[3]

Assam tea is particularly valued by consumers for its rich, robust and aromatic flavour. Like champagne, Assam tea is named for the region where it is grown: the lush, humid plains of the Brahmaputra River valley in North-East India. Often, supermarkets sell it at premium prices, either as pure Assam tea or as part of popular blends such as ‘English Breakfast’ tea. Building on the findings of a series of reports by local non-government organizations and international media outlets, new research commissioned by Oxfam and undertaken by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) on 50 tea estates shows the shocking scale and depth of human suffering of the women and men that produce our tea.[4] The new research finds that the workers who bring us this prized brew struggle to earn enough to cover their basic living costs, to find drinking water that will not give them typhoid or cholera, to reach a medical facility in time to treat illnesses, or to find shelter from the monsoon rains under the dilapidated roofs of their cramped houses.

Researchers interviewed 510 workers on 50 Assam tea estates that supply to tea brands and supermarkets internationally, revealing appalling working and living conditions that constitute a failure to respect, protect and fulfill international human and labour rights.[5] These findings include:

Poverty wages that are below the minimum wage for Assam’s unskilled agricultural workers.

Injustice for women. Including unpaid domestic work, women tea workers undertake up to 13 hours of physical labour per day after just six hours’ rest. They do the labour-intensive, low-paid task of plucking tea, while men get the better paid, more respected factory jobs. They are excluded from decision making and from pay and working conditions negotiations. These add up to a working life deprived of dignity.

Lack of basic healthcare, education, housing, food and sanitation entitlements. Housing and toilets are dilapidated or non-existent. Most workers do not have access to safe drinking water, so despite doctors’ warnings, they have no choice but to drink the contaminated water, meaning diseases such as cholera and typhoid are common.

Accordingly, we call for urgent action from supermarkets, tea brands, and state authorities to end the human suffering of Assam’s tea workers, and support a life of dignified work.

Read the full report (English) | Read the full report (Hindi)

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[1] L. Drew. (2019). The Growth of Tea. Nature: International Journal of Science. Retrieved 22 July 2019, from

[2] Tea Board of India. (2008). Executive Summary of Study on Domestic Consumption of Tea in

India. Kolkata: Tea Board of India. Retrieved 22 July 2019, from

Cited in BASIC. (2019). Study of Assam Tea Value Chains. Paris: BASIC. Statistic notes that

88% of Indian households consume tea.

[3] Centre for the Promotion of Imports from Developing Countries (CBI). (2016). Product Factsheet. Tea in UK. Cited in BASIC. (2019). Study of Assam Tea Value Chains. Calculation by Oxfam.

[4] The violations of human and labour rights in Assam have been the subject of local activism, national campaigning and multiple media exposés for many years. These include the BBC’s revelations of appalling living conditions on Assam tea estates supplying UK supermarkets, including overflowing cesspits, malnourishment and chemical spraying with no protection (BBC, 8 September 2019, The Bitter Story Behind the UK’s National Drink); Columbia School of Law’s indictment of the use of World Bank funds to create a partially worker-owned tea company with equally poor conditions (Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, 2014, ‘The More Things Change…’ The World Bank, Tata and enduring abuses on India’s tea plantations); and legal empowerment organization Nazdeek’s recent report on an anaemia crisis among pregnant women on Assam tea estates (Nazdeek, 2018, A Matter of Life and Death: Surviving childbirth on Assam’s tea plantations).

[5] Note that the legal basis for international human and labour rights obligations is found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (1966) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). Other relevant international labour standards can be found in the eight fundamental Conventions of the International Labour Organization, which can be accessed here: http://www.ilo. org/global/standards/introduction-to-international-labourstandards/conventions-andrecommendations/lang– en/ index.htm

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