Campaign for a Just Wage for Tea Plantation Workers Launched

Campaign for a Just Wage for Tea Plantation Workers Launched

With 1692 registered tea producers and nine auction centers, the tea industry sees an annual
turnover of over Rs. 9000 crores. North Bengal has about 450 gardens spread out in the Darjeeling
hills, Terai and Dooars region that are registered as sellers in the Siliguri tea Auction Centre with
about 3.5 lakh permanent workers. It is estimated that more than 25, 00,000 people are dependent
on the tea industry in the region. The last 10 years has seen many changes within the tea industry of
the region.

Closed and Abandoned gardens

In the last decade or so the region saw large number of tea gardens closing down. More than 50
gardens had closed during this period affecting a huge section of the work force. 4 gardens continue
to be abandoned. Interestingly, despite the crisis, till 2007 the tea industry in West Bengal saw only
8 workers’ strikes as against 202 lockouts! Of about 14 tea gardens abandoned by their owners, few
were run by the Operative Management Committees (OMC) – a committee initiated and formed
with the workers of the garden to keep the plucking of tea leaves happening so as to provide
subsistence sustenance to the workers of the garden. Most of these have now reopened with the
Special Tea Fund released in 2007 by the ministry of finance of the Government of India but are
functioning under the constant shadow of closure.
During this same period the region also saw a large number of starvation deaths. Nearly 1500
workers from the closed gardens died of starvation during this same period. Studies show that 70%
of the people of closed tea gardens are in the Chronic Energy Deficiency III stage. The Central
government announced the Financial Assistance to the Workers in Locked-out Industrial units
scheme (FAWLOI) for providing financial assistance to every worker of closed gardens, but it did
not extend the same benefit to the bigha or casual workers whose ratio to the permanent workers is
now almost at 1:3 and is ever increasing with the managements moving towards more induction of
casual workers especially in the cases of plucking for the inferior CTC tea.
The Supreme Court in its order in August 2010 had directed the Central Government to invoke the
Tea Act 1953 to take over the gardens that are closed within six months. The Central Government
has not only failed to stop closures in the industry, it has also failed to implement the Supreme
Court order.

Labour Rights Violations

The tea gardens have been violating the basic provisions of the Tea Plantation Labour Act with
impunity. Provisions of crèche, medical facilities, ambulance, and house repair have all become
things of the past. Moreover, many tea gardens of the region have also not deposited the provident
fund dues of the workers amounting to over Rs. 77 crores while the state government has provided
full support to the garden owners by being silent observers.
Further, a system of productivity linked wages was forced by the management and the Government
of West Bengal in 2005 during a very low ebb in the workers movement which led to the
introduction of a pro- rata system of wages that entails plantation workers to deliver a pre-agreed
productivity level to earn their basic daily wage. In case they fail to achieve this target, there is a cut
in the daily wage. However, extra productivity is also awarded with incentives. This productivitylinked pro rata system of wage setting that is contingent on the collective bargaining power of
negotiating trade unions is always fraught with the high possibility of huge losses in wage
depending on the bargaining strength of the trade unions. Given that the wages in the tea industry
are abysmally low, even lower than the statutory agricultural minimum wage in the state, this
system has actually perpetuated a system that can amount to payment of a wage lower than theminimum wage which according to the Supreme Court amounts to ‘forced labour’. This system has
also re-introduced child labour into the tea gardens. To meet the production targets, women workers
are forced to bring their children to supplement their work.

Towards a Just Wage

Wages in the tea plantation sector have always been set through tripartite agreements which have
been infrequent and skewed in favour of the plantation owners. With the sustained crisis in the
plantations and the recent Supreme Court directive for invoking the Tea Act and the upcoming
elections, the state government has felt the pressure to propose a minimum wage for the tea
plantations last year below which no wage can fall.
The government proposal of minimum wage for the plantation workers falls short of providing the
basic needs of a worker as proposed by the 15th ILC norms and subsequent Supreme Court orders
supplementing it. It is therefore time to build an alliance with all progressive trade unions to
campaign for a minimum wage linked to dearness allowance with 100% neutralization that will not
just provide the subsistence needs of workers but also ensure that there can be no productivity
linked wage cuts.

In taking this demand forward, Darjeeling Terai Dooars Chia Kaman Union, Pashchim Banga Cha
Sramik Karmachari Union, Terai Sanngrami Cha Sramik Union and the All West Bengal Tea
Garden Labour Union have come together to launch a joint campaign on minimum wage of Rs. 245
per day for the tea plantation workers as per 15th ILC norms and subsequent Supreme Court orders.
The joint trade union initiative will also campaign for the implementation of the Plantation Labour
Act and in case of sick and closed plantations demand the implementation of the Supreme Court
directive of 2010.

On behalf of the joint campaign, Ashim Roy, General Secretary, NTUI

Constituents of the joint campaign:

Ram Ganesh & Pradip Debnath
All West Bengal Tea Garden Labour Union (CPI-ML, Kanu Sanyal)
Ganesh Rai & Kailas Khawar
Darjeeling Terai Dooars Chia Kaman Mazdoor Union (CPRM)
Tapan Nag
Paschim Banga Cha Bagan Sramik Karmachari Union (NTUI)
Abhijit Mazumdar
Terai Sangrami Cha Sramik Union (AICCTU)