Brew belt demands pay hike

Siliguri, Feb. 4: Trade union leaders in the tea belt of north Bengal have demanded a pay hike for workers just before discussions begin on a new wage agreement.

The existing tripartite industry-wide agreement expires on March 31. The three-year deal was signed in Calcutta on July 25, 2005.

“Though some gardens are still closed and a few are short on funds, the tea industry in north Bengal has done much better in the past couple of years,” said Chitta Dey, convener, Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers. “So, we want planters to revise the salary structure of employees before the new wage agreement is implemented from April 1.”

The Coordination Committee is the apex body of tea trade unions, including the Citu and the Intuc.

Last time, it took more than two years to reach a consensus (the earlier wage agreement had expired on March 31, 2003) and that too after chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee intervened and the unions went on an indefinite strike.

“We don’t want the industry to suffer this time, but expect the planters to consider the need for an immediate pay hike,” said Dey.

Before the 2005 agreement, the daily wage of a permanent worker was Rs 45.90. Now, it is Rs 53.90, much lower than the Rs 88 promised by union leaders in 2005.

“At that time, we had to consider the problems faced by the industry,” a union leader said. “This time, we will demand a substantial rise because tea prices are on the rise, exports have increased, new overseas markets have been identified and domestic consumption has swelled.”

The planters were guarded in their response.

“The tea industry in north Bengal has definitely shown signs of improvement in the past few years, but the social costs, too, have gone up,” said N.K. Basu, the convener of the apex body of the planters. “It is difficult to think of a wage revision right now.”