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Christian Tea Plantation Workers Join Forces against Exploitation

ICC Note:

Plantation owners exploit workers because “we are of Indian origin and don’t have Nepali citizenship even though we have lived here for decades. And on top of that we are Christian.”

by Prakash Dubey

AsiaNews (08/07/06) – “United as never before” is how the mostly Christian tea workers have described their struggle against landowners who control Nepal ’s tea plantations and exploit them “like beasts for peanuts”.

Yesterday, their peaceful protest began. Vincent Ekka, 45, who works in Jhapa district on the border with India , explained to AsiaNews how he is forced to work in the field for 12 hours a day for less than a hundred rupees (just over US$ 1). “The wages have been the same for years despite consumer prices rising, including the price of tea,” he said.

Three trade unions, the All Nepal Tea Farm Workers, the Nepal Tea Farm Workers and the Nepal Free Tea Workers, are behind the labour action. Their members are employed in the country’s 35 major tea companies.

Ekka, a Christian of Indian origin, said that his wages he is not even able to give his children an education.

“Fortunately,” said another worker, Kuwar Tirkey, “the Catholic Church and other Christian churches run schools where we can send our kids to study.”

“Working under these conditions,” said Ekka, “wipes us out physically and economically. Bending for the whole day makes susceptible to illness.”

Most tea workers, 70 per cent according to Ekka, are descendants of Tribals from India , mainly Christians.

“Years ago life was good,” said Tirkey, “but now it’s hell. Plantation owners think they can squeeze us to the hilt because we are of Indian origin and don’t have Nepali citizenship even though we have lived here for decades. And on top of that we are Christian.”

Plantation workers now want a raise, a minimum wage set at 5,000 rupees (US$ 90), health insurance, educational facilities for their children and an annual one and half festival bonus.

Chandi Parajuli, who heads the Nepal Tea Producers’ Association, has called for a dialogue to settle the labour dispute, adding that whilst some of demands were reasonable, the unions had to take into consideration the stagnation affecting local and global tea prices.