Labor Pain in the tea gardens

It is an idea which evoked mixed reactions across the tea gardens in India. The move was a big success in the southern parts of the country with the Tata Tea Limited (TTL) fostering a partnership of its workers and employees to run the Kannan Devan tea gardens in Kerala’s Munnar region. But the same project is facing birth pangs in the northern parts of India with workers in West Bengal and Assam tea gardens expressing apprehensions over the concept.

In fact, the Kerala success had encouraged TTL to try this in the north Indian tea gardens, better known as North India Plantation Operations (NIPO) in Assam and West Bengal. However, the company is optimistic that its new concept of partnership of workers in the management of the tea gardens would be hailed as a landmark measure in the Marxists-dominated polity of West Bengal.

The TTL had initiated reorganization of its four tea gardens at Damdim, Rangamutti, Newara and Batabari with 10,000 workers from April 1 this year. The gardens are located in the Duar region of Jalpaiguri district in West Bengal. Same efforts are continuing in Assam where the management is reportedly getting wholehearted cooperation from both the workers (around 20,000) of the 20 gardens and the two trade unions — Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha and Assam Chah Karmachari Sangha.

In its four gardens in West Bengal, the TTL has begun the process of converting the company into a new entity — Amalgamated Plantations Private Ltd (APPL). “The APPL had technically come into being on April 1, 2007 itself. But some hoardings at certain gardens still show the old name. The reason is that there persists some ambiguity about the very concept and vision of the new entity. The workers are still ruminating on the idea of having partnership through shares in the company. They fear that the Tatas may have the vicious design to gobble up their gratuity and provident fund once the company becomes operational contending that the workers — after becoming part of the management — could not claim the benefits.So no worker has bought any share in the company till now and the new entity is virtually in a limbo in the region,” says Rajen Pradhan, a former manager at a tea garden.

Pradhan, however, feels that the apprehensions of workers are unfounded. Tatas have been the most magnanimous company in the tea gardens as far as the welfare of the workers is concerned. No other garden in the region does as much as Tatas do for their workers, he said. So the new partnership move would be certainly good for the workers in the long-term.

However, the ambiguity has cropped up because it is something very unique and unprecedented for the tea gardens in the region. Pradhan, who has visited the south Indian gardens, including the Kannan Devan plantations in Kerala, told Commodity Market that “the new partnership concept has come as a bonanza for the workers in Kerala. Their status has uniquely become a combination of both wage-earners with all benefits like gratuity, provident fund, bonus and other incentives and the proprietors with returns on their equity shares in the company. This is not happening anywhere else. As a matter of fact, our workers should lap up this new move”.

Shakil Rafique, deputy manager of the TTL at Damdim, said the new partnership concept “is a pro-workers innovation. It has notched success in south Indian tea gardens. And I am sure it is going to be a success in north India too. Some people are floating the wrong notion that the new concept is a bait that Tatas are throwing to the workers, employees and executives to swallow and gradually get rid of their myriad onuses in running the gardens. It is not like that at all. Tatas are today a highly upwardly mobile and dynamic corporate house with growing global dimensions. They would never even dream to betray their workers. After all, only honesty, transparency and commitment are the ladder to success in business today,” remarks Rafique.

According to Rafique, Tatas would be arranging long-term soft loans at low interest rates for the workers to buy shares in the company and the loans would be gradually deducted in small amounts. In this, the workers will not have to part with their funds in gratuity or provident funds to buy the shares. Their such funds would remain intact. Explaining the reasons for workers’ reluctance, Rafique said in the recent past several tea gardens had been closed down in the region.

“So it is natural that Tatas’ such concept would spawn some suspicion in the minds of workers. They may tend to surmise that Tatas are planning to disengage themselves from the loss-incurring tea gardens. But this is not the case. Tatas have never closed down their ventures merely on the ground that they are incurring losses. Rather, Tatas have always successfully tried to find remedial means to turn the losses into profits in their typical way,” Rafique said.

But Chanu Dey, vice-president of the Maoists-controlled West Bengal Chai Bagan Majdoor Union, considers the Tatas’ proposal “as an eyewash”. “This is simply a bait to trap the workers. But the workers are not going to swallow it,” remarks Dey, whose union has the control over the workers in the four gardens of West Bengal. He said: “Sometimes back we got a proposal from Tatas that they are envisaging to restructure their company in order to make workers partners in it. They proposed that every permanent worker will have to pay Rs 8,000 to the new company, APPL, for which they would be given commensurate equity shares in it. The staff would have to contribute Rs 20,000 to 25,000 and the executives would also buy shares in the new company.”

According to Dey, the Tatas’ proposal envisaged a share structure like 21 per cent shares for workers and staff; 19 per cent for Tata management and 60 per cent for various banks and funding agencies, but the company (read Tatas) would have special powers which will enable them to have full control over the administration of the gardens and other related affairs. “Our union has rejected the proposal. We have held intensive consultations with the workers of the four gardens on the issue. But the workers have unanimously decided not to pay anything or buy any shares in the new company. Above all, we have told the company to hold consultations with the workers on their own. And they did so, but they too failed to win the workers to accept their proposal,” states Dey.

He said: “In South India workers are not like the workers in our tea gardens. They don’t live in the tea gardens. Their relationship with the gardens are only of workers. But in north India, workers and tea gardens have umbilical relations. Workers have no independent status of their own. They live here in the quarters of the company within the gardens and are permanently wedded to them through the system of gratuity, PF and other benefits like highly subsidised weekly rations, including for their aged , minor and even unemployed adult dependents. The rations are given at the rate of merely 40 paisa a kg of rice or wheat. This system has continued for over 100 years. But once the workers become share-holders, they may be gradually deprived of these benefits. The management would tell them that they were not mere workers of the company but its proprietors too and hence they could no longer behave like the past. If the company incurs losses, the burden would be shifted to its share holding workers. So we have decided not to be mesmerized by the new partnership plan of the Tatas and continue to be its workers. No doubt, Tatas as management have been much more generous to their workers compared to other tea gardens. So we don’t want to lose that generosity by becoming their partners.”

Rannen Datta, a veteran of Darjeeling tea industry and consultant to several tea gardens in Darjeeling, said: “Tatas’ concept of partnership of workers in the tea gardens is indeed a novel experiment. However, Tatas have no interest in Darjeeling and so this novel concept is not going to come to Darjeeling in the near future. But I don’t see any contradiction in principle in this novel concept. It should work creatively in Tata tea gardens anywhere. They have already notched success in south India. Actually, the principle is that the agricultural part of the undertaking will now be shared. The interests, the stakes of the agricultural part will be shared by all workers and employees and the marketing part of it will be done by the Tatas. So what is the problem? I think this would boost the productivity and earnings potential of the tea gardens,” remarks Datta.

Sandeep Mukherjee, secretary of Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) that spearheads the conglomerate of 87 tea gardens on Darjeeling hills, has a mixed opinion about the Tatas’ move. “What Tatas are doing now, the Hindustan Lever has done a few years back. The Hindustan Lever is a major player in marketing tea. Now Hindustan Lever, Brooke Bond and Lipton have merged into one. What they have seen is that tea gardens are a labor intensive unit. Besides, the tea plantations are exposed to the vagaries of nature which means if there is drought, there is a drop in production. Being labor intensive they are prone to lockouts. Gardens may be locked up. Then again production drops. And they have seen this over a period of time. Since they are strong in marketing they have found it easier to source raw materials from outside than to run their own plantations and produce leaves themselves. These are the primary reasons that Hindustan Lever has left out and sold out its plantations,” explains Mukherjee.

Source: CommodityOnline