Global events, regional business decisions and local labor policy on company tea plantations in South Asia, 1901-1951

From the late nineteenth century, the South Asian tea industry was largely dominated by British companies and run by a unique managing agency system that incorporated agents in the big cities of Calcutta and Madras, and directors in Glasgow and London. The structure of the tea companies and their agents was meant to reduce risk in an uncertain landscape. The first half of the twentieth century included several major global, imperial and regional events—global conflict, economic depression, emerging labor movements, and the rise of nationalism in India and Ceylon—that affected the business structure and labor regimes of these tea companies and plantations in South Asia. Competition between chiefly the South Asian tea-producing countries (India and Ceylon), China (to a lesser extent in the twentieth century) and the Dutch East Indies contributed to market saturation of tea. Shipping complications during World War One contributed to a stockpile of tea that flooded the market after the war. Because of these events, the tea companies in India and Ceylon agreed to reduce production. During the Great Depression from 1929–39, a similar, but expanded agreement was arranged between the three major tea-producing colonies of India, Ceylon, and the Dutch East Indies. These agreements, while ensuring profitability for the tea companies, had a deleterious impact on plantation laborers, who experienced high unemployment and stagnant wages in the interwar period. Money wages were, in part, replaced with payment-in-kind social welfare services—a continuous practice that led to unrest and strikes by laborers in the tea-planting regions of Assam, the greatest tea-producing area, that reverberated throughout India. This paper explores in detail the disruption engendered by international events which had a direct and long-lasting impact on labor on sites of production in South Asia, due to the decisions and responses of British tea companies.