Govt mum, tea planters fear unrest return

Siliguri, Aug. 23: Tea planters are apprehending that peace prevailing in the gardens in the Dooars and the Terai will be vitiated any moment as the state government has not made any move in the past three weeks to broker a deal on the revision of workers’ wages.

The labour department or ministers entrusted with the task of holding talks with the planters and the trade unions have not got back to either parties after a tripartite meeting was held on August 5.

As the impasse continues, all trade unions, except the one affiliated to the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad, will be holding a convention on Monday to decide on the next course of action.

All the unions have put on hold their agitation for the higher wages, after weeks of general strikes, cease-work and the embargo on the despatch of processed tea from the plantations.

The garden owners said they wanted the government to intervene immediately to end the impasse.

“We are apprehensive about the current state of affairs in the tea gardens and want the government to act promptly to arrange talks to resolve the wage issue. It is a matter of concern that no negotiations have taken place after a tripartite meeting ended inconclusive on August 5. There is a chance that the unions might re-launch their agitation if no decision is reached immediately,” said Prabir Bhattacharjee, the secretary of the Dooars Branch of Indian Tea Association, a planters’ body.

The planters have also pointed out that until and unless a settlement is reached on the wages, they cannot fix the Puja bonus.

“Only a week is left in the current month. We are worried that if the wage issue is not resolved soon, there would be delay in fixing the Puja bonus. Even though fixing bonus rates would be easier than the wage negotiations, it would also take some time,” said the secretary of the tea association.

According to tea industry sources, the bonus will be fixed as a percentage of the revised wage. “As the pujas are round the corner, the wage and the bonus have to be fixed in quick succession. On the other hand, if the trade unions go back to their old demands of Rs 250 and Rs 165 as daily wages and call strikes, the situation will be complicated further. Now that the trade unions have scaled down their demands, the government must sit up and help us offer a realistic hike in the wages,” said a garden owner.

The garden labourers in the plains are paid Rs 67 currently. A new wage agreement was supposed to have come into effect on April 1 for a three-year duration.

Although the Progressive Tea Workers’ Union, affiliated to the Parishad, had initially sought a wage of Rs 250, it later said even Rs 130 would do. The union’s informal stand now is that any rate above Rs 90 will be acceptable to it.

Two apex bodies of labour wings — Defence Committee for Plantation Workers’ Rights and the Co-ordination Committee for Tea Plantation Workers — also reduced their demand from Rs 165 to Rs 130.

“The Parishad had conveyed its decision at informal talks with the ministers and the estate owners. So, any decision taken at such meetings will not be acceptable for us. We have repeatedly requested the labour minister and written to the chief minister to resolve the problem,” said Samir Roy, the convener of the Defence Committee for Plantation Workers’ Rights.

“There has been no communique from the government after the August 5 talks. We have no idea what the government plans to do.”

Roy said the apex bodies of the trade unions would hold a joint convention on August 29.

“We will chalk out our strategy at the convention. However, it seems that the situation will not change unless we approach the chief minister again for her intervention. A settlement on the wage revision has to be reached immediately. Otherwise, it will be difficult to fix the the bonus,” he said.

North Bengal development minister Gautam Deb said a tripartite meeting would be held soon to decide on the wage rate.

The Telegraph