News

A rally of hope - the struggle for minimum wages intensifies

Progressive Plantation Workers Union (PPWU)

 

Premature death stalks the impoverished tea plantation workers in West Bengal (Darjeeling hills and Terai and Dooars) as hundreds (including family members) die every year, prematurely due to malnutrition and diseases in the closed and abandoned tea gardens. In spite of such disconsolate conditions, there are very concerns expressed by the relevant authorities, i.e. the Union government or the Government of West Bengal or the tea plantation owners.

Lakhs of workers in nearly 300 tea gardens are compelled to work in dismally low wages which at present stands at Rs 95-90/day. The three-year agreement for which the wages (Rs 95 in Terai and Dooars and Rs 90 in Darjeeling hills) were applicable had expired in March 2014. Since February  25, 2014, at least seven rounds of tripartite talks between the labor unions, the management of tea gardens and the State government proved inconclusive. The last round of negotiation held from 15-16 December 2014 emerged fruitless with the owners and the government denying discussing the matter of Minimum Wage for the workers of this sector in a concrete manner. Instead of issuing necessary notifications for the minimum wage of the tea workers – a long standing demand of the workers and their unions - the government in collusion with the tea plantation owners seemed hell-bent at perpetuating the existing sub-human condition of the workers, much to the dismay of all.

Earlier, workers in all the tea gardens observed a total strike on November 11th & 12th, 2014 bringing the industry to a halt. The strike was called by a joint forum of 23 trade unions demanding minimum wages of tea garden workers and protesting against the lethargic approach of the relevant authorities.

In this context, Progressive Plantation Workers Union (PPWU) organized a bicycle rally that covered the entire Dooars area of North Bengal. The rally commenced on January 19, 2015 from Sankosh in the east and reached Ellenbarie tea garden in the west on January 24, 2015. The participants covered a distant of 300 kilometers covering around a hundred tea garden in Dooars where they campaigned against the systematic violation of workers rights and demanded an end to it, at least with the implementation of Minimum Living Wages in the sector, to begin with. Other prominent demands included the implementation of social security measures and rights for homestead and agricultural land for the workers of this sector.

 

The rally received widespread support and was greeted with great enthusiasm and hope from workers, amidst the otherwise bleak scenario. Meetings were held in different tea gardens and important locations/junctions and workers were urged to forge resolute unity for the coming struggle. In spite of gardens having established unions, workers complained about the bureaucratization and the corruption of the leadership which they felt was impeding participation in the larger struggles. Numerous group discussions were held with workers in different gardens to lift their spirits, forge common goals and strategise about the forthcoming movements for winning rights and justice.

 

In spite of the arduos task of bicycling an average of 50 kilometres every day in rugged terrains, the lively mood of the rally (150 workers participated from the beginning to end) communicated a serious will and determination for the days to come. It signalled that the neglected and the disprivileged tea-workers are up from slumber.

 

One rally would not reverse the super-exploitative mechanism of the industry but the mood of the workers and their participation at large, raises expectations and optimism about the future struggles and fights.