Home Community From bondage to the company boardroom

From bondage to the company boardroom

149

Indian tea plantation workers swap life of bondage for a seat in the boardroom 

In a groundbreaking initiative to rehabilitate and include plantation workers in the Southern Indian state of Kerala, Priyadarshini Tea Environs in Kerala’s Wayanad region saw the state government give 900 acres of land to the survivors of slavery in 1986.

The plantation is seen as a rare success story in a country where about 18 million people are estimated by the government to be trapped in bonded labour, working without pay across fields, brick kilns, factories, brothels or as maids to repay debts.

Once rescued from slavery, workers are sent back to their communities with compensation and the promise of more support. Yet most survivors struggle to access government benefits, from housing and livestock to financial compensation, and end up jobless and burdened by debt, leaving them at risk of falling back into slavery, labour rights campaigners say.

Sipping tea with bureaucrats at a plantation in southern India earlier this month, Sharda Krishnan’s mind wandered from the boardroom to the farm where she was enslaved as a child.

Her only payment had been in paddy rice and porridge, autonomy was unimaginable and despair perpetual. Now she co-owns a tea plantation in Kerala. Run by former bonded labourers for nearly 35 years, it is a place where freedom is a given and fear does not exist.

“There will always be work issues, but it will never be like earlier, when I was paid for my hard work with just a little paddy, some porridge and never allowed to quit,” said Krishnan, whose family was rescued from forced farm labour in the 1980s.

“I am one of the owners now so why should I be scared?” she asked last month. Projects such as the Kerala plantation that bring victims together are increasingly championed by charities as a more sustainable way of improving the lives of former slaves.

“Rehabilitation of rescued workers continues to be one of the biggest challenges,” Kandasamy Krishnan, head of the National Adivasi Solidarity Council – an organisation that works on labour rights issues – told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“The plantation … should be celebrated and replicated,” added Krishnan, who wants other states to follow suit. “Starting a collective and training the rescued workers to run it could be a starting point.

At Priyadarshini Tea Environs, every packet of its Vishwas Gold tea features a note outlining the slaves-to-owners backstory and a logo of hands breaking free of chains. Its 150 workers produce an average of 40,000 kg of tea each month, most of which is sold at auction in nearby Kochi.

An industry downturn led to losses so the plantation teamed with the state’s tourism department in 2019 to run tours, lay on camping and hold tastings, to raise funds and awareness.

“We want every visitor to know the struggle of the men and women behind the plantation,” said Vikalp Bhardwaj, a civil servant who oversees the daily running of the plantation. “It will also be an opportunity to talk about the issue of bonded labour.” 

Thomson Reuters Foundation

Thomson Reuters Foundation is the humanitarian reporting arm of Reuters News. They share compelling stories from across the world, with focus on women rights, anti-slavery, health, LGBT rights and many others.