Truancy warning to tea unions - Absenteeism rap follows wage hike

Darjeeling, June 29: Hill planters today sent a strong message to the trade unions that low productivity because of workers’ absenteeism and indiscipline would not be tolerated in the tea sector. The warning comes a day after the planters announced an across-the-board 33 per cent pay hike for the sub-staff of the Darjeeling tea industry.

The tea unions from the Darjeeling hills, especially the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha-affiliated union, have been able to extract three major concessions for their workers and the sub-staff from the garden managements in the past six months.

The managements have been forced to pay an annual bonus to workers at the rate of 20 per cent to Grade A, B and C gardens and 17 per cent for Grade D estates in October 2010. According to the Plantation Labour Act, 1951, 20 per cent is the maximum permissible limit. The Darjeeling tea industry had last paid a 20 per cent bonus in 1991 when production reached an all-time high at 13.9 million kg annually.

In early March this year, the unions had managed to extract a daily wage hike of Rs 23 for the workers, which, too, is the highest hike in the industry’s history. Yesterday, the unions were once again able to bargain for an all-time high increase in the sub-staff salary at 33 per cent.

“We have given everything that was possible. However, everything will not be hunky-dory in the Darjeeling tea industry if core issues related to labour indiscipline is not immediately addressed. Absenteeism is as high as 30 per cent among the work force. Workers don’t even put in 8 hours and indiscipline is rampant,” said Sandip Mukherjee, secretary of the Darjeeling Tea Association.

In fact, the Singtam tea garden in Darjeeling had to withdraw its management in December last year because of high absenteeism among workers.

Mukherjee said tea production figures were plummeting but the cost of production was bound to rise because of the unprecedented hike in salaries and the rise in prices of other commodities. “Given the hike in the wages and in fuel prices we can safely assume that the cost price would now go up by Rs 100 from the present Rs 250 per kg on an average. The average selling price still stands at around Rs 400 per kg,” said Mukherjee.

The selling price of tea in gardens located in lower elevations is not so high. “The quality of tea depends on the elevation,” said Mukherjee. The wage hike has, however, not differentiated between gardens on the basis of their elevations.

“The unions must make an attempt to address and educate the workers. We are ready to provide logistic help to the union leaders like ensuring transport to reach their people in distant gardens and make them understand the need to put in quality hours in a labour intensive sector. Merely being in the field for eight hours does not mean that they are doing the required amount of work,” said Mukherjee.

Given the fact that there are 55,000 permanent workers and 16,000 temporary ones in the 86-odd tea gardens of the hills, the industry will have to bear an additional burden of more than Rs 40 crore per annum for paying the salaries of the workers and sub staff following the increment. With the increase in wages, bonus and provident funds are also expected to increase. “The returns show no signs of improving. If the workers put in proper effort we can expect production to go up by more than one million kg annually,” said Mukherjee. According to the officials, the annual production of made tea was around 8 million kg last year.

“We want the unions’ active involvement as workers listen to them. The management is represented by a manager and three to four assistants in a garden. The situation is such that every one is trying to be a union leader,” said Mukherjee.

Suraj Subba, general secretary of the Morcha-affiliated Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Labour Union, said his trade union had always extended co-operation to the management and would continue to do so.

“However, instead of only blaming the workers the planters should also admit that there is mismanagement in the garden. We have never asked labourers to work only for six or seven hours instead of eight hours and they should manage things well,” Subba said.

On low-productivity, Subba said: “Most of the gardens are converting into organic gardens and production is bound to come down by at least 30 per cent. The management should also start uprooting old tea bushes and start replanting to boost production.”

The Telegraph