The Trinamul Congress has started an anti-bandh campaign in the tea gardens in the foothills through its trade union, asking workers to refrain from strikes and embargoes and instead fight for their rights through talks.

The Trinamul Tea Plantation Workers’ Union also said it would ask the government to help negotiate with planters so that garden labourers in the Dooars and Terai got a revised daily wage of Rs 130, the same amount paid under the 100-day central job scheme (see chart).

The Trinamul trade union’s anti-bandh drive kicks off a day after party chief and chief minister Mamata Banerjee requested all political outfits to refrain from bandhs and blockades as they affected livelihood.

“We are not in favour of calling strikes or stopping despatch of tea. So, we have started campaigns against such activities. Our chief minister has time and again insisted that strikes, bandhs and blockades should be discouraged. On our part, we are trying to take more and more people into our confidence. They should surely fight for their rights but not resort to any action that might affect the tea industry,” said Trinamul trade union leader Joachim Buxla.

The Trinamul trade wing is a constituent of the Defence Committee for Plantation Workers’ Rights that had called a three-day strike in the industry earlier this month. Today, however, Trinamul claimed that it had opposed the bandh then.

“We had instructed our supporters to report for duty,” said Buxla, who switched over to Trinamul from the RSP in 2009.

Trinamul admitted that as far as trade unionism was concerned it had far to go and had managed to form units in only 30 or so gardens. Citu and Intuc are dominant in most gardens, followed by the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad-backed labour union.

“We had started from scratch and right now, we have units in more than 30 gardens in the Dooars. Every week, we are opening new units,” said Buxla. “In terms of forming a trade union base, we have a long way to go but nonetheless, we have started working on our agendas to ensure that tea workers are not deprived of their rights.”

Last week, the trade unions scaled down their demand for revised wage to at least Rs 91. The root of the stand-off in the plains is a deal of Rs 90 a day that the Gorkha Janmuki Morcha managed to clinch for workers of the Darjeeling tea industry. The plains workers now get Rs 67.

“As there is no fixed minimum wage in the state, we consider the NREGS rate as the base for calculation of other daily wages. We have told the labour minister that workers would feel deprived if they are paid less than Rs 90. The revised wage should be Rs 130 or above,” Buxla, today, said.

A deal less than Rs 90, many trade union leaders believe, would upset the 2 lakh or so casual workers more than the permanent labourers. “The 2.5 lakh permanent workers, who get additional benefits like bonus, PF, gratuity, housing, ration and free medical aid, is not much attracted to the national job scheme. But for casual workers, who don’t get these benefits, the Rs 130 a day for at least 100 days is surely more attractive,” said Chitta Dey, a trade union leader.

Union leaders said the low wages in the tea industry had forced many youths to migrate to the north and south Indian states where they earn even up to Rs 250 per day.

Absenteeism is a problem in most gardens in the hills and plains. Hill planters blame the higher wage of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme for irregular attendance — one of the reasons why operations in the Darjeeling gardens are frequently hit, they say. The job scheme is open to all, including permanent workers.

Hill planters said the fringe benefits given to the permanent workers in the industry and daily wage together makes it Rs 130. Plains garden owners put the figure at Rs 120 or so but refused to blame the national rural job scheme for the truancy trend.

“There is a trend mostly among male workers to stay away from gardens. This is because of a number of reasons but it would be wrong to attribute it to NREGS,” said Sanjay Bagchi, the assistant secretary of the Dooars Branch of the India Tea Association, a body of planters.

The garden owners, however, could not provide a break-up of the fringe benefits in monetary units. “We cannot translate for example a housing benefit or a hospital benefit or firewood given for each worker. But when calculated on a larger scale, it comes to around Rs 120 a day if we add the daily wage of Rs 67 to it,” Monojit Dasgupta, secretary general of the Indian Tea Association.

Source: The Telegraph