July 1 meet for wage revision

Siliguri, June 20: Tea garden workers have insisted on major changes in the existing wage structure and mode of payment, which includes a hike of almost 100 per cent.

In their 18-point charter placed before the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations, an organisation of planters, and the Bengal government, trade unions in the tea industry have insisted on conversion of the daily wage system to monthly payments for permanent workers.

The Bengal labour department has invited planters and trade union leaders to discuss the revision of wages and salaries of more than three lakh tea workers at a tripartite meeting in Calcutta on July 1.

The last three-year-old agreement expired on March 31 this year.

Leaders of the Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers, an apex body representing trade unions like the Citu, Intuc and Himalayan Plantation Workers’ Union, will be present at the meeting.

“Unlike the Rs 53.90 paid to field workers and Rs 58.40 to factory workers on a daily basis after a week or a fortnight, we want them to get monthly salaries,” said Chitta Dey, convener of the Coordination Committee. “The minimum monthly salaries that we have proposed are Rs 3,120 and Rs 3,400 for field and factory workers respectively.”

For temporary workers, who also earn Rs 53.90 a day, trade unions have proposed a hike of Rs 120 per day for field workers and Rs 130 in factories.

The other demands include revised pay scales for technicians, clerical and medical staff. “Those who need to operate computers or are in hazardous jobs should be given an allowance of 25 per cent on their salaries. Plus a variable dearness allowance at the rate of one per cent per point of rise in the All India Consumer Price Index should be paid to the workers,” Dey said. “We also suggested promotion of women, who are mostly pluckers, to supervisory posts.”

Darjeeling strike fills Assam teapot

Calcutta, June 19: Darjeeling’s loss is Assam’s gain — and Calcutta’s pride.

Calcutta airport clocked its largest single consignment of tea when 48 tonnes were loaded into a Singapore Airlines cargo carrier today.

But the tea was from Assam, not Darjeeling, because the indefinite bandh for Gorkhaland has choked supplies from the hills and stepped up demand for the beverage from the northeastern state. Chests carrying more than a million kg of tea are said to have piled up in the warehouses of Darjeeling gardens following the strike.

“Today’s consignment is going to London through Amsterdam. The export order was received by us at a short notice of five days,” said Amin Khan, manager, eastern India, Singapore Airlines cargo division.

Usually, orders are given a month in advance and big consignments weigh around four tonnes, Khan said. Yesterday, a 6-tonne consignment was sent to Melbourne by the airline.

Cargo officials at the airport, too, said more Assam tea had been passing through the airport in recent days. Excluding today’s consignment, around 30 tonnes of Assam tea have been carried by different airlines out of the city over the past 10 days, they said.

“Under normal circumstances, the amount would have been half,” an official said.

Since June 10, not a single tonne of Darjeeling tea has been exported through Calcutta airport or port because of the disruptions caused by the agitation of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha.

“There has been a definite increase in the demand for Assam tea. However, we don’t want the tea export in Darjeeling to suffer,” said Pradyut Bordoloi, the industries and power minister of Assam.

Assam produces around 450 million kg of tea every year, out of which 20 per cent is exported, Bordoloi said. The state earns around Rs 1,000 crore from exporting tea.

In Darjeeling, the annual production is 10-11 million kg, of which 70 per cent is exported to meet the huge demand in the US, the UK, Germany, Japan and other developed countries.

Assam’s premium quality tea costs around Rs 200 a kg in the international markets, compared to Rs 800-1000 for the second flush Darjeeling Tea.

“The demand for Assam tea has increased over the last two weeks. We are getting SOS calls from exporters to urgently fly consignments to Europe,” said Abhijit Biswas, business unit head, eastern India, Panalpina World Transport, a multinational freight forwarding company which handled the 48-tonne consignment.

“The importers’ problems overseas have increased by the insignificant movement of Darjeeling Tea. Kenya, which has a substantial market in the UK, has lowered output. So blenders need a substitute,” said Sujit Patra, joint secretary, the Indian Tea Association (ITA).

Although the bandh enforcers had promised smooth operation for tea gardens, it has not been so. “Since all banks are closed, no wages can be paid to the workers and production is stalled,” said Basudeb Banerjee, chairman, Tea Board of India. “The supply of Darjeeling Tea has been severely affected and dispatch is entirely closed. The condition has become worse.”

Darjeeling unrest poops tea party

Calcutta, June 15: Calcutta’s port and airport have not exported tea for the past five days, the hills unrest preventing cons-ignments worth around Rs 7-10 crore from reaching the city.

“This is the second flush season, when we get the best-quality Darjeeling tea. If the situation doesn’t improve we may lose export markets,” said Aditya Khaitan, chairman of the Indian Tea Association, the apex body of tea companies.

A brief spell of showers in May kicks off the second flush season, after the first flush has ended in late April. As monsoon sets in well and proper, tea quality deteriorates and fetches lower prices.

Although the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, which called an indefinite bandh last Monday, relaxed it from Thursday, the truckers who ferry tea from the gardens to Calcutta aren’t prepared to take chances, traders said.

Production too has been hampered with workers often unable to report for work although tea gardens are exempt from the bandh, which resumes from 6pm on June 16.

“The bandh and unrest have affected both production and exports, because of low worker and staff attendance and transport problems,” Khaitan said.

Arvind Nevatia of Chamong Tea, which owns the highest number of tea gardens in the region, said the bandh had hit planters, traders, exporters and even the airlines and shipping companies that transport tea outside India.

“The losses can run into several hundred crores. This is because the tea companies have entered into forward contracts with other countries,” he said.

The smaller tea growers are suffering too, prevented by the unrest from sending their plucked leaves to bought-leaf factories or the bigger gardens that have their own factories. So they are forced to sell at reduced prices to factories outside the area earmarked as “Gorkhaland”, with whom they don’t have tie-ups.

Sources said these gardens were selling at Rs 8-8.50 a kg, down from the Rs 10-10.50 a kg at the beginning of the season.

Calcutta airport exported its last loads of tea on Tuesday. These had arrived before the bandh. “Since then, nothing. All bookings have been cancelled,” said Amin Khan, manager, east, Singapore Airlines cargo division.

Other carriers too have suffered huge losses, international cargo department officials at the airport said.

A 100-tonne consignment of Darjeeling tea, scheduled for London, has been deferred, an Emirates airline official said. Of this, 48kg was to arrive at the airport this week. “We are worried,” the official said.

Darjeeling produces about one million kilos of tea in June, the average price being Rs 800-1,000 a kg. Tea worth Rs 2 crore is exported every day and a day’s loss in production costs the planters Rs 3.33 crore.

The annual production is 10-11 million kg, of which 70 per cent is exported to meet the huge demand in the US, the UK, Germany, Japan and other developed countries.

Darjeeling accounts for 7-8 per cent of the Rs 1,800-2,000 crore India earns from tea export per year. One kilo of second-flush Darjeeling tea can fetch up to Rs 8,000 in the international market.

“Most of the superior-quality tea is exported. It is unfortunate that at a time we are trying to increase exports — Darjeeling being the flagship brand — such disruptions have taken place,” said Basudeb Banerjee, chairman, Tea Board of India.

Expert tips for Darjeeling Tea

Kalimpong, June 3: The vice-chancellor of Sikkim Central University, Mahendra P. Lama, has suggested a seven-pronged strategy to turn around the fortunes of the tea industry in the Darjeeling hills and make it more labour-centric.

Addressing members of the Hill Employees’ Association here today, Lama, who is an expert on South Asian economy, said production of the famed Darjeeling Tea has come down from 15 million tonnes to around 6-7 million tonnes.

“Surely, the fault must lie somewhere; either with the owners or the trade unions,” the vice-chancellor said.

Lama suggested a seven-point programme starting with worker empowerment by giving them shares. “The most expensive tea is from Darjeeling and the poorest workers in the world are also from Darjeeling. How can that happen?” he asked.

Lama said it must be made mandatory for owners to run their estates for at least 10 years to provide continuity and maximise output, besides carrying out a sustained re-plantation programme in the gardens. “Most (tea) bushes in Darjeeling are over 150 years old. And bushes between 25 and 40 years give the best tea,” he added.

The vice-chancellor said setting up of tea auction centre in Darjeeling was a must to ensure transparency in transaction.

Adopting organic methods of plantation and integrating tea with tourism would also go a long way in reviving the industry, Lama said.

During his speech, which lasted over an hour, Lama touched upon a wide range of issues, including the renewed demand for Gorkhaland.

The academician who hails from Darjeeling clarified at the outset that he had no links with political parties, but added that the journey of life would be incomplete if individuals did not fight for their rights.

Calling the movement for a separate state the final fight, he advocated a multi-pronged strategy with a strong intellectual content to achieve it. Lama also stressed on the right leadership to make the movement effective and took potshots at the GNLF for misleading the people for over two decades.

The Hill Employees’ Association was celebrating its 22nd foundation day as Ekta Diwas following the recent merger of its two factions.