How Apeejay Tea created a sense of ownership and value among the workers at the estates

By Ramakrishn Ghosh

I’ve been at the helm of creating the first of its kind employee reward and recognition in the tea industry. Across Assam, Apeejay Tea’s gardens are honouring employees for their skills of plucking, adherence to food safety, health & hygiene standards, discipline, punctuality and commitment. In April & May 2019, around 90 Pluckers and 21 Factory workers were awarded Best Plucker Award and Factory Star Awards respectively! As we progress into the Tea Season 2019, more awards will go out till December 2019 and eventually all year round awardees will compete for the coveted Chairman’s Trophy to be given out for 23 slots of Champion of the Season 2019 in March 2020 annual Apeejay Tea Award Ceremony. The core objective of recognizing workers has taken its shape and course. It has brought everyone involved tremendous joy.

Apeejay Tea’s and Assam’s first woman tea estate manager Manju Baruah giving out Best Plucker Award for April – May 2019 at Hilika Tea Estate

Creating this garden level initiatives has been a unique experience for me as HR practioner because these are also unprecedented tough times for the tea industry. At the HO I can see the ‘All hands on deck’ as every executive works round the clock to ensure a business turnaround. Amidst it all when the news of award get-togethers at our gardens and factories in Assam pour onto my desk in Kolkata, it feels good that an initiative I have created is applauding those in the gardens who are playing a role in taking the business closer to its goals.  Business is driven by knowledge of employees and relationships between the individual and organization and in these awards we recognise the root of the tea cup – the plucker of the tea leaf as well as the – Factory worker who processes the leaf.

Me addressing the audience at the Apeejay Tea Annual Award Ceremony 2018 at Napuk Tea Estate

I was there in Assam in March this year for the Annual Award ceremony for Tea Season 2018 and I could see that our initiative had created a sense of ownership and responsibility in Field & Factory workers towards the Business. My team and I road tripped across the state to three districts where our gardens are located in Clusters of 4 or 5. Napuk Tea Estate in Chairdeo, Hapjan Tea Estate in Tinsukhia, and Borjuli Tea Estate in Tezpur district had offered to host the annual Award Ceremonies.  By the time we reached there for the annual event, each of the gardens had been awarding workers every 30 and 60 days which had resulted in 360 pluckers and 105 factory workers being felicitated with cash rewards. I was there to felicitate 13 who had emerged as Champions of the Season and many more surprise awardees whom we had up our sleeve. Winners from Cluster Gardens were travelling to the host garden with their families.

Me at the Award Ceremony at Hapjan Tea Estate with Mr. Dileswar Tanti, President, ACMS Office, Doomdooma Circle & Advisor, Central Committee, Dibrugarh; Mr. Konpai Das, Assistant Labour Commissioner, Tinsukia; Mr. D. Doley, Labour Officer, Tinsukia district and Mr. Biswajit Gogoi, Development Officer, Tea Board, along with the winners and managers from HO & Apeejay Tea’s estates in the district and our our DGM Mr. Debashish Barua.

As I stood on the gaily decorated award stage with our garden top brass, newbies and experienced welfare officers and special invitees from the Assam Branch of Indian Tea Association, Tea Board, Assam Labour Department, Garden union leaders, I felt that we were acknowledging the contribution of the tedious yet skilled nature of work in the gardens bringing the focus on every worker who toils in the field or factory for tea production. At that time, all of these guests, certainly me and my colleagues already knew that Tea Season 2018 was going to end badly. Before I left HO, everyone knew the season had not been able to bring relief to the backbreaking  loss of Apeejay Tea, yet when I met the Chairman Mr Karan Paul to brief him, I was energised to see his eyes shine as I read out the names and profiles of Champions and Special Awardees. He asked me if I and the team were carrying goodies for the kids and spouses of the winners who were travelling to the Award Ceremony venues from gardens which are far away from each other. We were because the Chairman had, a month back, already instructed that we organise the gifts for families of winners and our check in luggage quantities were huge – Trophies, Sarees, Pants, Suits, Certificates! Just the fact that the Chairman remembered to remind me that every family travelling to the award ceremony should go back feeling overjoyed at the results of hard work of their family member, was touching.

The Chairman is focussed on benefitting those who work the most – loss or profit – and are at the core of the business, hence the most important part. He is the driving force behind my work on creating this unique initiative not done by any other tea company in Assam! Workers play a crucial role in the tea business and  our winners stood for the kind of dedication that is needed to contribute to tea cultivation and quality tea production per acre in Assam. I was happy to see that we had successfully established the worker’s inseparable role in every step of making tea and implemented the process pf recognition in the most transparent manner.

Me at the Annual Award Ceremony 2018 at Napuk Tea Estate with Mr. Prakash Nag Secretary, ACMS, Sonari Circle; Mr. Swargajyoti Saikia, Tea Board Development Officer, Sonari along with the winners and our DGM Mr. Pradeep Kakoty

It was my responsibility to  convey the spirit of Chairman and the Management team’s intent back to the congregations that were our Tea Award Ceremonies. I found that words came easily to me as I addressed the gathering with my award ceremony speeches. I switched language to make myself understandable to the spectrum of audience. In a world of constant change demanding quantum leaps in performance, communication can be a powerful means of making change happen. I was glad I was able to convey that it was only when every single person involved in field and factory work together that our company will be able to overcome the current phase. The reason for my ease of speaking in Hindi, a few parts Bengali, English and Assamese, was because I truly believed in what I was speaking – abilities, team work, purpose and positive intent are irreplaceable whether we are working towards targets in a city based business or in an agricultural business. Here’s a video a team member took of one of speeches https://youtu.be/WYDVcuYxlGY

I have been a lead talent recruiter in many of my roles so far in my career. To find talent who can align and deliver on business’s goals is what makes me the happiest. Apeejay Tea’s reward & recognition program is unique in the sense that generations of these workers have been working in our company so these are not talent me as HR is ‘hiring’, yet our initiative is helping spotlight talent from thousands!  From over 100 winners we have awarded so far in April and May 2019, 71 are brand new talents of Tea Season 2019! We all know that women are the best pluckers in tea but I would be lying if I said that I knew that they made a mark in tea Factories too. They do as we are discovering through our Reward & Recognition Program! In April and May 1/4rth of performers in Apeejay Tea Factories are women! In Season 2018, we had a Factory Champion who was a woman!

During the Award Ceremonies, winners in their speeches showed us that workers realised the importance of their role in the organisation. Here are two of them Anita Kondon of Hapjan Tea Estate, winner of Champion of the Season from Cluster 2 (Link: https://youtu.be/VnHZqoatls4) and Lochmi Birsa of Hilika Tea Estate, winner of Apeejay Surrendra Group Value Achiever Award winner (Link: https://youtu.be/WFmfPlfnjNI) speaking. Lochmi is saying “There should be more Lakshmis in the garden. If one Lakshmi can do this, imagine having 5 Lakshmis in the same garden. And what if all the pluckers (were Lakshmis)! And Anita is saying “Every plucker should think that if Anita can become a Champion, then why can’t anyone else! We should all try to aim for the Best Plucker Awards.”

Me at the Annual Award Ceremony at Borjuli Tea Estate with Dr. P.K Lahkar, Medical Inspector of Plantations and Special Member, Medical Advisory Board for plantation workers of Assam; Mr. Mrinmoy Baruah, Secretary, ABITA Zone-3; Dr Anupam Sarmah, WWF Brahmaputra Landscape Project Head and Hiten Baishya of WWF India along with the winners and managers of Apeejay Tea’s estates in the district and our DGM Binod Rajbonshi

I also met a Champions’ family whose mother accompanied her on stage. While giving her a gift, I asked her to speak. She turned out to be a renowned plucker herself and got a standing ovation for words of praise she spoke. There could not be a better validation about this programme’s potential in encouraging everyone to give their best.  I can say that I was encouraged by the warm response and hence, Apeejay Tea’s Reward & Recognition Programme for 2019-20 is much broader as compared to 2018-19. Chairman has himself guided its expansion and coverage and approved the process that runs behind it. Many more categories of Apeejay Surrendra Group Value Achiever Awards has been included for various areas of work in tea gardens and we will be recognizing those who work in our tea gardens upholding the Group’s values – Solid, Committed, Youthful, Inspired and Entrepreneurial – through their work in their respective areas through preset parameters. These are not spot awards for heroic work, these are awards for consistently great work that takes the business closer to its goals. Towards this end, I have also increased the time span of the monthly Factory Star Awards as production started early in Season 2019. Already five women have aced the Factory Star Awards in April & May!  I am also delighted to see Champions of the 2018 Season emerge in the first two months of Season 2019 as best performers winning the Best Plucker Awards. I am looking forward to the next awards in the Field in August and the Factory Star awards, which are monthly and have already started coming in for work done in June 2019. Here’s a picture of Ghoiralie Factory Star Awardee of June 2019.

Our DGM Mr Binod Rajbonshi giving out the Factory Star Award for June 2019 at Ghoiralie Tea Estate

Last year, when the awards committee met to decide the Champions, some of the work done during the year was so unique and equally holding up against every award parameter that we had to use tie-breakers which are built into the process and available within the realms of the Reward & Recognition Policy. We zeroed in on some performers whose work was so impressive that the awards committee brought in Chairman Karan Paul’s Group-wide individual performance recognitions to Apeejay Tea and we gave out Apeejay Surrendra Group Value Achiever Award to honour those who had upheld the Group’s values of Solid, Committed, Youthful, Inspired and Entrepreneurial through their work.

From left: Usha Bhumij of Ghoiralie TE with Apeejay Tea BPA 2018, CM’s Best Plucker Award, Apeejay Tea BPA 2019 & Apeejay Surrendra Group Value Achiever Award 2018

There is no denying the fact that the tea industry is bleeding heavily. It is the hardest time in industry history of over 180 years. I am proud that Apeejay Tea is approaching this downturn with a large heart. Quality will be the driver and as the saying in Tea goes – “Quality is made on the field” – and thus we are committed to recognizing the contribution of our workers in this mission. As the management works hard along with garden executives to achieve business goals, I am hoping that as a team these awards keep the workspace marked with mutual encouragement and respect. It helps everyone deliver sincere work, the kind of work the tea industry needs right now.

Ramakrishn Ghosh is Head HR, Apeejay Tea and General Manager – HR, Apeejay Surrendra Group

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