Human Rights Training Draws on Past Experiences in Tea

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Human Rights Training Draws on Past Experiences in Tea

Interview with SAI Lead Trainer Sanjiv Singh on his early tea plantation experience and its impact on his work to train for human rights at work
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Interview w/ SAI's Lead #SA8000 Trainer on #humanrights & past experiences in #tea #laborrights


Sanjiv Singh is Social Accountability International's (SAI) Lead Trainer and Authorized Representative for in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). In late March and early April 2013, Mr. Singh spent two weeks in New York, where he led two training courses - SAI's Basic and Advanced SA8000 auditor training course.

In this interview with SAI Communications Manager Joleen Ong, Mr. Singh reflects on his early roots as a tea plantation Manager in Assam, the current labor issues encountered in the Middle East and the value of the training courses to learn the basics of 'human rights at work.'   

Tuesday, April 30, 2013 - 9:20am
Joleen Ong: As a former tea plantation manager in Assam, how do your past experiences shape your current work?
Sanjiv Singh: My time managing tea plantations between 1984-1994 has been particularly useful in my current profession. Working in the tea plantations was more a way of life than just a job. Tea plantations in India were a product of colonialism but things began to change rapidly as India became independent.
Being accountable for the well-being of over 2,500 people brought out a sense of responsibility and awareness; not only to meet their personal needs such as housing, water, medical care, fuel, children's education, wages and social security, but also their emotional needs, which were equally important. Labor unrest, sometimes violent, was common in some plantations that I knew. This was often caused due to lack of communication and poor grievance management. This is particularly an issue logistically, as the tea 'workplace' spans across vast tracts of land, making communication an even bigger challenge.
While training students, I often relate back to some of the challenges I faced in the plantations like - health and safety (chemical safety), freedom of association, child labor, discipline and remuneration and speak of how SA8000 addresses each of these requirements as a part of a management system. I have suggested SA8000 certification to several friends in the tea industry; not only to demonstrate socially accountable practices externally, but more importantly to use it as a tool to build healthy communication channels between management and workers that not only helps productivity but also engages with workers at a deeper level.
I am happy to see that tea plantations in India and Sri Lanka have begun to get certified to the SA8000 standard. With the advent of investigative journalism and easy access to internet, social media and general awareness of worker rights it is more than necessary that industries address labor standards in a more sustainable and permanent way.
JO: As you're currently based in Dubai, what are some of the key challenges faced by workers that you observe there?
SS: The Middle East has its own set of challenges that relate to migrant workers which constitute a large part of the working population - the UAE is particularly unique in that it has a migrant worker population of above 80%. While employees stand to gain because of the saving potential and better living conditions in the Middle East and Gulf States overall, there are challenges related to retention of personal documents, shadow employment contracts, unscrupulous recruitment agents, the inability for workers to raise concerns, the process for grievance management and worker representation.
While the UAE has taken great strides in addressing these concerns, and labor conditions are far better than before, certain challenges such as a culturally diverse workforce and fast-paced socio economic development still remain. I do see the good intentions by the government to address this. In fact, my company WIRE works with the Federal Government of UAE in building capacity, training Labor Inspectors and guidance and consulting to address the particular challenges that remain.
JO: You led the Basic and Advanced SA8000 auditor training courses in New York - how did it go?
SS: The groups that attended the basic and advanced courses were quite unlike those that I have taught in the past. The representation was diverse - from NGOs, global brands, certification bodies, consultants and factory owners from the Far East. The participant mix contributed to positive learning in the classes with attendees sharing thoughts and experiences from the field - this added a lot of value to the class.
For example, there was one moment when the concept of gender equity was heatedly being debated, but in a healthy way, among attendees in the classroom. One participant from an east Asian country stated that it would be culturally insensitive to equate women to men at work, and that an auditor would be considered disrespectful, unprofessional and 'crossing the line' if this was questioned. This participants' perspective was an example to others about the cultural challenges that an auditor often faces when working on the field.
JO: There is a growing trend where many of the people that attend aren't actually taking the course to become SA8000 auditors - what do you think is the overall value that people receive from taking the course?
SS: The SA8000 Basic Auditor training course, as the name signifies, is not only meant to teach those who have experience in performing social audits but also people who have an interest in learning more about human rights at the workplace and international labor standards. Besides wanting to obtain professional qualification in performing social audits, participants find the course particularly useful when experiences from the field are shared by the trainer and also by their co participants. This contributes enormously to everyone's learning. The course material provided is also a valuable reference point for all those who attend and should be referred to as often as possible.
JO: What were some of the field experiences that participants shared?
SS: One particular challenge faced by a participant was about how to calculate the living wage in India. This participant also shared from experience the methods of deception that are prevalent in certain parts of the world like double book keeping, coaching workers, parallel sets of time records and incorrect interpretation of national laws. To address this, it is expected that social auditors conduct the necessary research about the workplace to be assessed with local NGOs and other interested stakeholders, obtain information about the industry and be aware of the socio economic concerns in a region or country - this is in addition to the prerequisite knowledge of local laws. This prepares auditors to perform effective audits and ask meaningful questions to both management and workers.
JO: Where are you going next and what will you be doing?
SS: My next stop is to witness a SA8000 audit at a shoe factory in Agra, India, a short drive from New Delhi. The export-oriented leather industry in this region is large and flourishing. Some of the key challenges faced are contract workers, remuneration (living wages) and health & safety. I am looking forward to my work.

For more information, contact Mr. Singh at or Ms. Ong at


Joleen Ong
Social Accountability International
Keywords: Business & Trade | India | SAI | Training | assam | csr | discrimination | humanrights | sa8000 | sanjivsingh | supplychain