By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI, Sept 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The World Bank group has defended the treatment of tea pickers at an Indian project it funds with the multinational Tata Global Beverages, dismissing criticism that thousands of workers were living in poor conditions.
Four charities this week said little progress had been made to protect workers at India's second largest tea producer in the northeast state of Assam - despite the World Bank group's own watchdog raising concerns over low wages and poor housing.
The International Finance Corporation (IFC) - which is part of the World Bank group - invested $7.8 million in the $87 million project to help preserve jobs and raise standards for workers, but had been criticised for failing to do this.
However an IFC spokesman said more funds have been allocated to improve living standards, and employee councils formed to address complaints and boost workers' say in company decisions.
"There are the long-standing challenges within the tea industry in India. Across Assam and other tea plantations, poverty is deeply entrenched," Frederick Jones told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Despite the many challenges, Tata and IFC remain forces for good in the sector," he added in an emailed statement.
The tea industry in Assam, the world's largest growing area, has been in crisis for years with accusations of slave labour and trade unions demanding better wages while tea estate owners refused. Tea estates have faced closures due to various reasons, including labour disputes.
Around 30,000 tea workers are employed by Amalgamated Plantations Private Ltd (APPL) - a joint venture with the IFC and Tata Global Beverages (TGB).
APPL was set up in 2009 to acquire and manage tea plantations previously owned by TGB, which owns Tetley, the second-largest tea brand in the world.
INVESTIGATION INTO CONDITIONS
TGB owns just less than half of APPL and the IFC 20 percent, while the remainder is held by workers and smaller firms.
Complaints by charities and unions about exploitation of tea pickers prompted an IFC watchdog probe in 2014.
The watchdog's findings in November last year found APPL had failed to identify and address complaints of low wages, poor housing and sanitation, and exposure to hazardous pesticides without adequate protection.
The investigation also found IFC's investment supported an employee share-purchase programme in which APPL misrepresented the risks of buying stock, resulting in workers incurring debts.
Despite promises to improve conditions, a report this week by four civil society groups - PAJHRA, PAD, Nazdeek and Accountability Counsel - said little has changed.
"Living conditions continue to remain oppressive and unsafe for tea workers, with crumbling housing, squalid sanitation, the absence of toilets and unclean drinking water," said Stephen Ekka, Director of PAJHRA, an Assam-based charity.
The IFC and APPL have also failed to provide safety training or ensure basic protection gear for pesticides, he said.
APPL dismissed the report's findings as inaccurate.
A company statement said wages were in line with salary laws for the sector and safety and medical care provisions in place.
TGB said despite problems faced by India's tea industry, APPL was committed to better the lives of its workers.
"APPL faces the same financial challenges as the rest of the tea industry in India," said an emailed statement from TGB.
"However, that has not impeded its efforts to bring about a positive change in the tea plantations ecosystem ... in which APPL has invested a substantial amount both in terms of capital investment as well as operating expenses."
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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