National Situation

Protect Right to Just Minimum Wage and Democratic Rights of TUs in Tea Plantations

Protect Right to Just Minimum Wage and Democratic Rights of TUs in Tea Plantations

18 August 2011, New Delhi: The New Trade Union Initiative supports the continuing united
industrial action by 32 unions represented by the Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation
Workers supported by the Defense Committee for Plantation Workers Rights and other unions for
an increase in wages from the present Rs. 67.50 to Rs. 165 and a re-introduction of Variable
Dearness Allowance (VDA).

The tripartite negotiation, that began with the lapse of the previous industry wage agreement on 31
March 2011, entered a deadlock after 6 rounds of negotiation when the Consultative Committee of
Plantation Association (CCPA), refused to accept the demand of the Coordination Committee for an
increase in daily wages from Rs.67 to Rs.165. The government then made an informal proposal to
the unions to accept an increase in wage to Rs 130 at par with the MGNREGA wage. The CCPA
offer for wage increase stands at Rs 24 spread over three years at Rs. 8 each year to Rs. 91 in three
years time. This means that the employers are offering a wage increase, even with the additional
component of wage in kind, that would keep wages below the national floor wage and also below
the state agricultural minimum wage.

The West Bengal state government along with the employers has come down heavily against this
united action of the trade unions in the region. The employers, on one hand, have resorted to wage
cuts in several gardens and have even declared illegal lockouts. On 4 August, the management of
Bharnobari Tea Estate (a garden, employing 2,034 workers, that remained closed for a period of
over two years between 29 December 2005 till 27 April 2008 and experienced 28 starvation deaths
during this period) began to deduct wages of workers for participating in the hour long gate
meetings that were being organised by all trade unions in every garden calling for a resolution of
the present deadlock. When workers protested the illegal wage cut, the garden manager threatened
to declare a lockout in the garden. Hundreds of workers led by women activists of the Paschim
Banga Cha Bagan Shramik Karmachari Union gheraoed the manager and the 6 assistant managers
and walked them 2 km to the Hashimara Police Station and filed a complaint of harassment. The
management has since abandoned the garden. Similarly, in the Debpara Tea Estate, employing 1108
workers, the management announced a ‘suspension of work’ following protests by workers.

On the other hand, the newly formed state government has adopted a dual strategy to break the
unity of the workers. In response to the strike call by the tea unions, the Chief Minister of West
Bengal said “… The politics of strike cannot be allowed to go on …. Numerous tea gardens have
remained shut. There can be problems, but strikes cannot be used as a tool to deprive people of their
rights.” She also added that if necessary her government would legislate to ban strikes. This is in
blatant violation of the right to strike of workers. The political right to strike is organically linked to
the fundamental right to association and collective bargaining of workers as enshrined in our
constitution and is an inalienable part of trade union response in times of dire crisis. This is also in
violation of the ILO Conventions 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to
Organise and 98 on Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining. Even the United Nation’s
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights enshrines the right to strike.

The government has also begun parallel wage negotiations with the Progressive Tea Workers’ Union
(PTWU) which is not even a member of the Coordination Committee, that represents 32 unions in
the industry, which along with the Defense Committee is the bargaining agent for workers in the
tripartite negotiation. The PTWU had initially demanded a daily wage of Rs 250 against the demand
of Rs. 165 plus VDA made by the Coordination Committee. When the CCPA turned down this
proposal, the PTWU also decided to support the strike called by the Coordination Committee on 7
August 2011 supported by the Defense Committee as well as many other unions, including the AllIndia Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) and the union affiliated to the Indian National
Trinamool Trade Union Congress (INTTUC).

But, following a bilateral meeting on 10 August 2011 with the State Industries Minister, Partha
Chatterjee, Development Minister, Gautam Deb, and the Labour Minister, Purnendu Bose, the
PTWU announced that they would go on strike on 17-18 August if the wage for plantation workers
is not increased to a minimum of Rs 90. This is not just diluting the wage demand of the
Coordination Committee but also breaking the existing united movement of tea workers. The union
on 14 August has also withdrawn its proposed two-day tea strike from 17 August after a meeting
with north Bengal development minister Gautam Deb. This parallel negotiation process is also
undermining the ongoing tripartite negotiation and driving a wedge in the unity of workers in the
industry.

NTUI welcomes the coordinated effort of the unions in the Coordination Committee of Tea
Plantation Workers and stand in solidarity with the continuing struggle for a wage agreement in the
tea industry in Bengal. Further, NTUI strongly condemns the state government’s threat to ban
strikes and its efforts to circumvent the tripartite negotiation. We call upon the Government of West
Bengal to respect the:
1. Right of the bargaining agent for workers – the Coordination and the Defence Committees – in
the tripartite negotiation on tea
2. Framework of tripartite negotiation in industry wage agreement
3. Right to Association and Collective Bargaining of workers
4. Principles of a just minimum wage for all workers