Human trafficking and tea: What's the connection?

The sisters trafficked from a tea plantation
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Story highlights

  • CNN reported on girls growing up on tea plantations in Assam, India, who are targeted by human traffickers
  • You sent us your questions about the series, experts give their answers

The CNN Freedom Project amplifies the voices of the victims of modern-day slavery, highlights success stories and helps unravel the tangle of criminal enterprises trading in human life.

(CNN)Last month, in a series of videos CNN highlighted the plight of girls growing up on tea plantations in Assam, India, who are targeted by human traffickers.

Police in Assam say young girls from tea plantations are easy targets. They live in poverty, have very little education, and their parents are often saddled with debt.
    Most are descendants of the original bonded laborers brought in from other parts of the country by British colonial rulers. They live in the same impoverished circumstances as they did more than a century ago, with the same impoverished lifestyles.
    Traffickers approach the girls as placement agents, offering them work in cities such as Delhi. Police say young girls see placement agencies as a way to escape the cycle, lured by promises of good jobs and a steady income. Instead, they too often find themselves sold as domestic labor and denied wages, or forced to work in the sex industry. Police say hundreds of girls in tea districts fall victim to traffickers every year.
    After the videos aired, we asked you to send us your questions about the series.
    We sent the best questions to CNN reporter Muhammad Lila, Siddharth Kara, director of the Program on Human Trafficking at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Sarah Besky, an anthropologist at Brown University and author of "The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India."
    Here are their answers to your questions:

    Question 1

    Muhammad Lila: There are some good things happening. First, and perhaps most importantly, the government is aware of the problems. When we spoke with the federal minister in charge of the tea industry, she wouldn't comment specifically about the trafficking aspect, saying only that other elected officials haven't yet brought it to her attention. But overall, they're aware of the terrible living conditions on some plantations.
    One of the measures they're implementing is to include tea workers into the government's own welfare schemes. In other words, they realized some tea plantation owners weren't providing their workers what they're legally obliged to (things like adequate housing, clean water, elementary education, etc.)
    So rather than continuing with the status quo, the government is re-writing the rules so that those things will now be provided directly by the government under existing welfare schemes that already cover other people. In exchange, the owners will take whatever they would have spent on those things and pay that amount directly to the employees, as a cash payout.
    There are also some organizations like Rainforest Alliance and the Ethical Tea Partnership that are working to improve conditions on the ground, by monitoring working conditions and in some cases, helping to enforce voluntary guidelines that plantation owners have agreed to.
    Watch police raid human traffickers in India
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    Siddarth Kara: By and large, government efforts to improve the income, security, and living conditions of workers in the tea sector of India are not sufficient. Local NGOs try to close the gap, but they typically suffer from severe resource constraints.
    You would find the same to be true across most of South Asia's informal economy -- the poorest communities labor in sub-human conditions and extreme poverty that render millions of families vulnerable to exploitation, including human trafficking.

    Question 2

    "I'd like to know what caste and religion are the girls who are trafficked." - Dr Aidan McQuade, Director, Anti-Slavery International via email
    Muhammad Lila: This is a good question, since in many areas, there is still a lot of caste-based discrimination. The short answer is that we didn't ask. A victim is a victim.
    Siddarth Kara: Most of the girls trafficked from Assam, as with other parts of India, belong to low-caste or outcaste communities. The constitutional term for these groups in India is "Scheduled Castes," and they eke out a sparse existence at the margins of society.
    Assam has 16 Scheduled Castes with a total population of over 2.2 million people. The two largest Scheduled Castes in Assam are the Kaibarttas and the Namasudras, many of whom can be found toiling on tea plantations. One might also find a high proportion of Muslims as well as Tibetan refugees.
    All these communities are highly disadvantaged in India and represent the majority of individuals ensnared in debt bondage and human trafficking. Needless to say, efforts to improve their conditions or uphold their rights often fall short because of systemic biases against these "lower" classes of people.
    Sarah Besky: Across Northeast India, workers are generally mostly Hindu and Christian. In Assam, many tea workers are adivasis [the various ethnic groups considered to be the original inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent] and are locally referred to as members of "tea tribes."
    Selling girls from tea plantations for $200
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    Question 3

    "Which girls are most vulnerable?" - Peggy Richelieu Harris via Facebook
    Sarah Besky: Human trafficking in Northeast India does not only happen on tea plantations. It happens across rural and urban areas.
    I am not aware of any studies that measure the relative vulnerability of girls there, but in Assam, where the film was made, there are many tea plantations. It is therefore not really surprising that traffickers would target plantation villages.
    In my opinion, poverty and a lack of employment opportunities are important factors -- this goes for anyone, not just girls who grow up on tea plantations.
    Muhammad Lila: In nearly every plantation we visited, we came across stories of exploitation. Some involved trafficking, others involved accusations of starvation, denial of medical care, etc. In general, we came across certain general patterns. Tea plantations run by larger, more established, and more wealthy conglomerates tended to offer better living conditions than those run by smaller and less established companies.

    Read the Tea Industry's full response to CNN's questions.
    On the smaller plantations, or those with a poorer tea yield, there was no medical care, no primary education. On several plantations, we came across workers who said they were starving because the company hadn't paid them in months (the company admitted they hadn't paid their workers, but said all of them were receiving emergency food rations -- something we saw no evidence of).
    In general, the girls who are most vulnerable were those from smaller, less-profitable plantations, with lower levels of education and no family support structure, e.g. parents who were absent or under the legal guardianship of people other than their parents.

    Question 4

    Is there something more we can do? Anything we can do to help people sooner than later? - Jay Atlas via Facebook
    Siddarth Kara: NGOs or other organizations outside of India who wish to help would be best served by partnering with a local NGO that works directly in communities to improve the conditions of people who are most often exploited or trafficked.
    There are numerous cultural nuances and complexities that must be understood and negotiated in order to have a meaningful impact, and organizations working within the target communities would be in the best position to receive your help and transform that into meaningful improvements.
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    Muhammad Lila: The first part is raising awareness. When we drink tea, it's easy to forget that the leaves may come from remote tea fields, picked by people who've been working those fields their entire life.
    A single cup of tea at a place like Starbucks usually costs more than what those workers make in an entire day. I'll never forget the answer one tea worker gave us when we asked what would make their lives better. "When people wake up in the morning and have a cup of tea, they feel good," she said. "All we want is to feel a little bit of that goodness, too."
    If you're in India, you could speak to your elected representatives and tell them to do more. If you're a tea consumer, one option is to buy tea from sources that are certified for treating their workers in an ethical and sustainable way. The "fair trade" movement of the coffee world isn't as widespread in the tea industry. But some groups are beginning to label tea products as ethically sourced. That's a good start.