Planters face state pay-up pressure - Interim hike hope for tea sector

Darjeeling, Sept. 1: The tea industry, under “extreme” pressure from the CPM-led state government which has its eyes on next year’s Assembly polls, is likely to accept the demand for an interim wage hike for its workers in north Bengal. The next round of talks to discuss the wage hike will be held in Calcutta on September 9.

In the last five rounds of meeting between the state, trade unions and the garden managements, the planters were unwilling to accept any interim hike since the 2008 wage agreement is in place till March next year. The 3 lakh workers in the gardens of Darjeeling and the Dooars and Terai receive a daily wage of Rs 67. The workers had demanded an interim wage hike because of the rise in prices of essential commodities.

“During the last meeting, we were under extreme pressure from state labour minister Anadi Sahu and we are now actively considering an interim hike,” said an industry source. The meeting was held in Calcutta on August 30.

Observers believe that the Bengal minister is exerting pressure on the industry with an eye on the coming Assembly elections. “The Left has much at stake in north Bengal. With the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad making substantial inroads, it is a difficult time for the Left in north Bengal now,” said an observer.

Since setting up base, the tribal outfit has been making inroads into the Dooars and the Terai displacing dominant unions like the CPM’s Citu and the Congress’s Intuc. The loyalty switch of workers that followed was such that during a strike called by the Citu on July 5, almost 80 per cent of the 227 gardens were open in the Dooars.

Till recently, the tea management was unwilling to budge from its stand to go for an interim hike. But now, when it has changed its stand, the Adivasi Parishad has made it clear that it does not want an interim hike but a new agreement where the daily wage of workers will be Rs 250. “There is still some possibility of the negotiations falling through as the Adivasi Parishad is adamant that instead of an interim wage hike, the workers should be paid Rs 250 per day. This would be very difficult to accept,” a source said.

“So far the management had agreed only to repair the workers’ houses,” the source added.

The management is, however, pinning hopes on the labour minister to also impress on the Adivasi Parishad to accept the interim wage hike and keep the demand for Rs 250 daily wage for discussion at a latter stage. “Since the minister is exerting pressure on us which has forced us to change our minds, it is only right that he should impress on the unions, especially the Adivasi Parishad to be flexible,” said the source.

Sandip Mukherjee, secretary, Darjeeling Tea Association, said there were indications of a positive outcome in the next meeting.

“I can only say that the outcome should be positive,” said Mukherjee.

Source: The Telegraph