The first time I visited the tea gardens of Assam I was confronted with stories which remain etched on my mind and heart. We were in the garden to a run kids clubs to raise awareness about human trafficking. A community meeting had been called for anyone who wished to attend and after we had introduced ourselves and explained what we were doing, the Community Leader asked if anyone had questions.
One by one people stood and their story was translated. They were all more or less the same. They told of their child or brother or sister being taken by an ‘agent’. When we asked what an agent was, they said they were employment or migration agents. They knew who they were, they were their neighbours and sometimes their relatives. They told of being offered money for their children to get an education and work out of the gardens. One even said that when they refused, their two daughters were kidnapped the next night.
Sometimes they had received news for a few months and money sent home. A part of the deception to make people believe they were ok. But eventually they had no further contact. Many had small photos to show us, tattered and faded, some sobbed.
NGOs working in the region believe that these missing children may have been deceived, lured away by false promises of a good job and a better future, and ultimately trafficked into exploitation.
We left the church building and wandered in smaller groups with the people as they showed us the extreme poverty they lived and worked in. Tiny houses where some had lived for generations which they adorned with pride but such adornment could not hide the cracks. We stepped over puddles made by broken pipes mixing drinking water with sewage. They told us of grinding picking quotas, in the stifling heat and humidity that I could hardly move through. No wonder these people were so easily tricked into the web of deception human traffickers weave. We saw workers without protection, spraying pesticides they were obtaining from drums that were leaking, and children working in the processing factory part of the garden. When I asked two of the young girls their age one said 13 and the other said 8. They were not the only ones.
Visiting Assam this time was a case of “where you stand determines what you see.” The view from the tea garden owners is that they are making a difference – clean water supplies, houses being repaired, drainage installed and programs to build resilient communities beginning. They asked us to acknowledge they are a good company and their positive actions. They are indeed taking the first steps. From the local people’s point of view, this is a tiny beginning and only happened because a spotlight was shone on the situation by the rest of the world. They asked us to keep shining that light. We must.
I will never watch an ad for tea in the same way. Now I know what is happening behind the tranquil scenery of this and many other gardens. We must speak out. This has to stop.
Carolyn Kitto, STOP THE TRAFFIK Australia Coordinator reporting back from her time visiting the tea plantations in Assam, India where she also delivered the Walk Free and STOP THE TRAFFIK petition to Tata and APPL.
Find out more about STOP THE TRAFFIK’s Not my cup of tea campaign: www.stopthetraffik.org
Find out more about Walk Free: www.walkfree.org